First there was the 2008 WGA writer’s strike, which the long-time host of NBC’s Late Night survived by abandoning the traditional monologue-skit-interview format of late night variety shows for improvised content and audience interaction.
Then there was his famously brief tenure as the host of The Tonight Show, NBC’s flagship variety hour once hosted by the likes of Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. Low ratings for both O’Brien’s program and former Tonight Show host Jay Leno’s prime time talk show caused the network to give O’Brien an ultimatum: either bump The Tonight Show back to 12:05 a.m. to make room for a half hour version of Leno’s show at 11:35 p.m., or NBC would buy out the option on his contract.
O’Brien became something of a folk hero in the ensuing controversy, rallying tremendous support from the online community with Facebook pages such as Team Conan and I’m with Coco attracting millions of hits. Outraged fans went so far as to stage public demonstrations in protest of the move.
Ultimately, Conan walked, saying in a January 12 statement, “I believe that delaying The Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show.”
While his settlement with NBC prevented him from returning to television on another network before September 1, O’Brien took his show on the road with his Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour, using the proceeds to pay the salaries of his former Tonight Show staff and crew, many of whom had relocated from New York to Los Angeles O’Brien’s short-lived program.
Building on the success of his 42-date tour, for which most tickets sold out in under two hours of his announcement via Twitter, O’Brien signed a deal with the basic cable network TBS to host a late-night variety show beginning this fall.
“We called the show Conan so it would be almost impossible to replace me,” joked O’Brien on the series premiere of his new show last Monday, November 8.
The return of late-night’s lankiest comedian was seen by an estimated 4.1 million Americans, beating his closest competitor The Tonight Show with Jay Leno by six hundred thousand viewers. Although numbers dropped fairly steadily throughout the week, levelling out at approximately 2 million viewers, the show remains a rousing success for a late-night basic cable program.
While Conan seemed a little off the mark in his first episode, visibly nervous and laying it on a little too thick with the Jay Leno and NBC jokes, O’Brien quickly remedied this in subsequent episodes with hilarious skits including a discussion with a TBS censor about what he can and can’t say on his new show.
Although O’Brien’s latest show doesn’t break much new ground, usually sticking to the conventional format of late-night fare, it is a much better fit for Conan’s particular brand of underdog humour than the somewhat stuffy atmosphere of The Tonight Show where he often seemed uncomfortable. Conan feels a lot more like Late Night in that O’Brien can be freer with his content and not have to broaden his comedy to court Leno’s audience.
One brilliant addition is the inclusion of nonsensical episode titles in the opening credits that included “Baa Baa Blackmail,” “Murder, She Tweeted,” and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Spanx,” in Conan’s first week.
It’s also nice to see Andy Richter back on the couch instead of stuck behind the announcer’s podium.
For the legions of devoted Cone-heads, Conan O’Brien’s new show is a welcome return to the zany antics that won him such a strong following in the first place, yet it faces increasing questions of relevance with the apparent decline of the traditional late-night variety show format and the advent of satirical political pundits like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
To those concerned about such questions, I can only offer one piece of advice. In the words of a certain Mr. O’Brien, “Be cool my babies.”
Conan airs Monday through Thursday at 11:00 p.m. on TBS, 12:00 a.m. on The Comedy Network and 1:00 a.m. on CTV.