When the “Late Night Wars” erupted back in February of 2010, things got out of hand very quickly. One minute, all seemed to be on the right track at NBC…and the next minute, Conan O’Brien and his staff were compelled to leave the NBC lot, Jay Leno slithered back behind the Tonight Show desk, and the network’s execs were left looking like the world’s biggest assh-les. It took seven months to get Conan back on the air, and it’s been six months since his return. How’s he doing? Read on for our critique, my gentle Examiner readers…
Back when Conan O’Brien was compelled to leave NBC and the “I’m With Coco” movement was in full swing, the idea of a late night landscape without the former Late Show host was unthinkable: what the hell were we supposed to do for the seven months that Conan was mandated to stay off the airwaves? Watch Letterman? As a wiser magician than I once said: Come on!
And so we waited, and some of us even shelled out the cash to see Conan’s live, Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television tour (it was awesome beyond words, but if you wanna read the words we were able to conjure, head on over to this drastically-reformatted page). Conan released a single with Jack White, spoke to 60 Minutes, grew a beard, toured the States, popped up in a few other off-TV interviews, and plotted his return.
When it was announced that TBS would be Conan’s new home, confusion prevailed: TBS? Really? Don’t they just run Golden Girls reruns and Beastmaster movies? Well, yes, at one time they did, but in the time since TBS had been trying to bring in a younger, hipper audience, and with The George Lopez Show (not our cup of tea but still relatively successful) and then Conan, the network pulled off a late night coup. They weren’t shy about promoting it, either, going so far as to construct a massive eyesore of an orange blimp for the former Tonight Show host and spending millions on print ads to build buzz.
As if he needed it. Conan’s return to the late night landscape was one of the biggest moments in entertainment circa 2010, and he would’ve put up massive numbers even if TBS hadn’t spent a dime on promoting the show. The first few weeks arrived with the inflated ratings typical of any new show, and since then Conan‘s tapered off to a respectable nightly audience. He’s not within spitting distance of, say, Leno’s Tonight Show, but his numbers are good enough to keep TBS happy, and that’s all that matters. It’s a win-win for all involved, actually, and in time some have even come to believe that Conan’s departure from NBC– as brutal as it was– really was the best possible thing that could’ve happened.
So now that Conan’s been on the air for six months, what do we think about Conan?
For one thing, Conan has been wildly uneven. Some nights yield material that’s nothing short of magic, like the shows that ran around Christmas which featured a jaw-dropping set of Christmas decorations (including a robotic rabbi, a dinosaur, and an inflatable chicken sandwich). Other nights, things are underwhelming. In short, Conan‘s turned out to be a lot like every other late night show: a beyond-capable host whose writing staff balances their homeruns with an equal number of strikes.
This is par for the course for any show that airs four nights a week (hell, it’d be par for the course for a show that airs two nights a week), so we can’t really dwell on that. Conan’s folk-hero status in the wake of his departure from NBC might have led some to believe that TBS’ Conan would be something completely revolutionary, something beyond hilarious. Some made the mistake of taking the narrative of the “Late Night Wars” and imagining a too-happy ending, one where Conan would come back to television with a show that would change the very face of late night. As much as we’d like for that to be the case, the truth is that Conan is just like Conan’s Late Show: some nights ya win, some nights ya…well, you never “lose” when you’re watching Conan, but you might be forgiven for flipping over to see what Letterman’s up to.
This isn’t what bothers me, though. I can deal with slight inconsistency. The ability to even bat .500 in late night is nothing short of miraculous, and Conan bats well above that (let’s call it .700). No, what bothers us is this: Conan had the opportunity to do whatever he wanted with his new TBS show, and– despite rumors that the late night format might be tinkered with– it’s turned out that it’s just…business as usual: a monologue, a pre-taped bit or an in-studio bit with Andy, two interviews, a musical guest (or a comic), and then the credits.
Y’know: the exact same thing that everyone else has been doing for years under the watchful eye of the major networks. As far as I can tell, the most “revolutionary” thing about Conan is the title card that Conan’s staff attaches to each episode (originally, the idea was to name each new episode in the style of TV murder mysteries like Murder, She Wrote, but it seems to have strayed from that over time). Beyond that, it’s the exact same show you’d see on CBS, NBC, and every other network that boasts a late night talk show.
There’s a reason all those shows are the same: the network’s watching, and they don’t like things being tinkered with. Networks and their executives fear format changes, always convinced that the home audience will run screaming from anything that sets itself apart from “the norm”. The late night format was established decades ago, and since then, very little has been done to snazz it up. Back in the 80’s, Letterman did a lot to screw with the format and people’s expectations of it, but over time, Letterman mellowed. Conan’s style is reminiscent of some of Dave’s crazier stunts (Letterman’s always been a hero of Conan’s, almost as much as Johnny Carson was), but it’s still operating within the framework of the tried-and-true late night framework.
With TBS, though, Conan O’Brien was given a blank canvas to work with: the network made it clear that they weren’t going to offer any nitpicky “notes” (like the ones that Dick Ebersol continually shoveled onto Conan when he made the move to The Tonight Show, such as “Lose Andy Richter”)(Boooo), that Conan could do whatever he liked for a full hour every night of the week and they’d be happy to have him. This was the driving force behind the rumors that Conan might be something completely different, of course. The thinking went: “Now that Conan doesn’t have Dick Ebersol and Jeff Zuckerberg standing over his shoulder 24/7, we’re going to see the show that Conan’s always wanted to make…but was never allowed to!”
Some imagined a version of Conan without a monologue, or one without a mandatory, nightly musical guest. There’s plenty of room for experimentation in the late night world, and if anyone was going to grab the bull by the horns and make it happen, well, it had to be Conan O’Brien. As we’ve seen over the last six months, though, that’s not what Conan’s done. Every night, we watch him do the same 8-10 joke monologue, the same dual-interviews, and we watch as some band trots out on stage to play a single song while you drift off to sleep. And ya know what? That’s disappointing.
So, what would we like to see? Variety. Why– when you have a fanbase that would gladly follow you straight through the gates of Hell, as Conan’s fans have shown a willingness to do– wouldn’t you change it up a bit? Why not dump the monologue some nights, fill the time with some elaborate, pre-taped bits? Why not have a single interview each night– or, hell, why even keep that as a mandate?– and do away with the musical guest altogether…unless it someone really worthwhile? Why not make each episode slightly different, make Conan a show that’s always one step ahead of its audience? They may not have taken the chance when they had it, but this remains the only staff in late night that I’d trust with such experimentations.
Another issue: while the success ratio of Conan‘s bits runs at .700, his guest-success ratio runs closer to .400. For every Larry King appearance, there are three guy-from-Glee-whose-name-you-can’t-remember appearances. For awhile there, Conan was lining up some really great guests, but even in his first week he had a few people grace the Conan stage that just seemed…well, less than thrilling. Over time, that’s gotten worse, and now it’s to a point where– though we watch every show– I’m compelled to read the night’s lineup on my DVR before I hit the “Play” button (here at Comedy Examiner HQ, we watch Conan in the morning over coffee). This problem could be solved one of two ways: elminating the two-guests-per-night mandate…or simply stepping up the booker’s game.
This sounds like a lot of bitching– and it is– but don’t let me fool you: Conan is still pound-for-pound the most entertaining late night show on television, and that’s all because of the host. Conan’s energetic and upbeat even when he’s being snarky, unlike the cranky Letterman. He’s hilarious and absurd, unlike the unfunny and oblivious Leno. He’s less political than Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. He’s a natural in his role, and when he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s unbeatable. We just wish he was taking more risks.
It seems like the time for massive format changes has passed, but there’s still a chance that Conan and his staff will throw us a few curveballs if enough fans make it clear that they’d be open to the idea. On the off chance that someone associated with Conan is reading this (Hi, Aaron!), that’s our vote: Keep up the great work, but give us more of Conan, Andy, the band, and– most importantly– comedy. The celebrity interview stuff’s always been the weakest part of the show, so why not try dialing it back a bit and see what opportunities arise? Who knows? Conan could still ignite a late night revolution.
Our Grade? B+.
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