I should preface this with a confession: I love Conan O'Brien. Outside of my family and closest friends, there's no one I've spent more time with in my life. Throughout most of high school, and at great expense to my studies, I stayed up late solely for my time with Conan. So, it goes without saying that I was on Conan's side during the NBC debacle and was eagerly awaiting his return. As such, I was predisposed to liking his new show, “Conan.”
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Guess what? I thoroughly enjoyed the premiere. Big shocker.
In the face of massive expectations and a tremendous, multi-faceted marketing campaign by TBS, Conan came out Monday night facing huge expectations. How different would “Conan” be from “The Tonight Show” or even “Late Night?” How would he address his break-up with NBC? How would the set look? Would we see the Masturbating Bear?
Conan, in theory, was going to be in front of a large audience, an audience consisting not only of long-time fans but also those viewers who tuned in during the last weeks of his “Tonight Show” and enjoyed the way Conan handled his dismissal from NBC. That soap opera months ago endeared Conan to a previously untapped viewership. In the break between his shows, Conan managed to stay visible, first through a nationwide tour, then with an unparalleled online presence and the recent TBS ad campaign. Monday night, in essence, was an audition for this new audience.
Unfortunately, I have no idea how these relatively new (and potentially fickle) Conanites will have responded to Monday's “Conan” premiere. I can only tell you that Conan was the Conan I know and love. The premiere didn't aim terribly high, and it felt like an episode of “Late Night” more so than “The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien.” I think that's a good thing. The world feels right again.
Opening with a taped segment dramatizing Conan's exit from NBC and his subsequent search for a job, the premiere began on an appropriately goofy note, addressing the Leno situation lightly and without bitterness. Whatever edginess and conflict inherent to those contentious final days as “The Tonight Show” host hasn't seeped into “Conan.” Everything is now peachy in Conan land. This became abundantly clear during the monologue when he poked fun at himself for putting his staff through the madness of the past year simply because he refused to move back a half hour.
As opposed to, say, his segment on “60 Minutes” a few months back, Conan appears to have gotten over taking himself and his travails at NBC seriously. The premiere of “Conan” was a loose, light affair. It wasn't overly scripted, and though you could sense some minor nerves in his even more-ebullient-than-normal behavior early in the show, Conan was at ease on his new stage.
The set itself feels similar to his old “Late Night” set. It's cozy and intimate, featuring a beautiful ocean backdrop and an over-large remote-controlled moon that Conan utilized to full potential in the premiere. The question of whether Conan would tempt the NBC legal fates by bringing back his old characters was answered almost immediately when the Masturbating Bear showed up to help draw some winning Mega Million numbers.
In what can be considered the only lowlight of the premiere, the typically hilarious Ricky Gervais sent in a taped segment that poked fun at Conan's short “Tonight Show” tenure. The jokes were obvious but amiable, and if Ricky Gervais is the low point of your show, you're doing something right. The moment Seth Rogen sat down on the couch, it struck me that my expectations for the premiere were likely outsized. After all, it's still just an episode of a talk show. Not to say that the interviews were bad. Seth Rogen was funny, albeit a tad manic, and “Glee's” Lea Michele was all prepared cutesy anecdotes, but there's a ceiling to most celebrity interviews. Any thought that Conan would try and reinvent the talk show wheel was refuted immediately.
It was an odd feeling. I couldn't have reasonably expected anything different than what “Conan” brought Monday night. Yet, with all of the hullabaloo surrounding the premiere, there was an underlying thought that Conan and his team would attempt the extraordinary. It's to their credit, however, that they didn't overstep their bounds. The entire post-monologue segment was spent simply, with Conan and sidekick Andy Richter messing around, bantering, two old friends trying to make each other laugh. It was pure and genuine, the kind of thing that can't be synthesized.
If you ever wanted to see Conan's appeal perfectly distilled, his end-of-show performance with Jack White is all you need. Definitively outmatched by White, a musical virtuoso, O'Brien earnestly held his ground. He was slightly uncomfortable (who wouldn't be?) and it showed. There's an authenticity to Conan that's omnipresent. Playing guitar on stage, trying to impress a man he idolizes, we see who Conan is, the same person he's always been: just a guy who wants people to like him.
In the end, it's nearly useless to make any judgments based on one show. We don't know what the future holds in the uncertain late night landscape. In a few months, when the audience has solidified and “Conan” settles into a groove, we may have a better handle on the show's future. For now, though, it just feels great to see Coco back on television. The drama of his exit from “The Tonight Show” can now be cast aside for good. The channel doesn't matter. The name of the show doesn't matter.
My old friend is back, and I get to see him every night.