LOS ANGELES — Conan O'Brien's
contractually mandated wandering in the wilderness that is Everything
That Is Not Television came to an end Monday night with the premiere of
his new TBS late-night show, "Conan." Technically, it came to an end
the previous week with a three-minute walk-on to new late-night
neighbor George Lopez's "Lopez Tonight," which "Conan" has bumped to midnight; a sexy mock-sexy promo involving a garden hose; and an impressive American Express commercial in which O'Brien travels to India
to buy, weave and dye the silk for the curtain for his new show. But
those were just appetizers: This remains, for the indefinite moment,
the story of a talk-show host and his still unpredictable future.
The first lines of this new chapter were promising, if not quite the fulfillment of his last wild nights at NBC,
when caution was thrown to the wind. And except that it was a constant
subject of discussion and scripted humor, the shift from broadcast to
basic cable had no obvious effect on his presentation; it neither
inhibited nor liberated him. (They do still bleep the bad words.) His
new set, which is dominated by a background seascape and a big moon
that O'Brien can move by remote control ("It cost me hundreds of
thousands of dollars and we're using up a lot of fossil fuel"), is
actually better looking than his "Tonight Show" set, and the smaller
size suits him — less a comedown than a welcome adjustment. The last
frame felt too big for the picture.
It is probably too much to say that leaving "The
Tonight Show" — which is to say, appearing to have been fired from "The
Tonight Show" — was the best thing that could have happened to O'Brien,
but it made him interesting and topical in ways that he would not have
been had he stayed on NBC. He toured like a rock star,
graced the cover of Rolling Stone, gathered close to 2 million
followers on Twitter, and, as a victim of corporate incompetence,
became a most unlikely thing for a person in his line of work: heroic.
This is something of an illusion, of course — just as it should be
impossible to regard as a victim any man given more than $30 million
not to host a talk show — but it is by such illusions that we
participate in our culture, that greater illusion that looks like life.
"Conan" opened strong, with a filmed piece tracing his journey from NBC
to TBS, although in this "Godfather"-inspired version it involved being
shot by men in black suits, and a bottoming out in which he applies to Jon Hamm's Don Draper
for a job ("You have no advertising experience; plus, it's 1965 and
you're 2 years old") and is saved from suicide by an angel-winged Larry King: "I have two words for ya. Basic. Cable."
"Thank you and welcome to my second annual first
show," said O'Brien (still wearing his hiatus beard), when he finally
appeared after an ovation that "lasted longer than my last job." The
monologue contained (only) a couple of swipes at NBC, including a film clip involving the intellectual property known as the Masturbating Bear. Ricky Gervais appeared in a taped segment that predicted O'Brien's further downward progression to the Food Network, a Dayton, Ohio, morning show and satellite radio. The host displayed a Conan O'Brien Halloween mask, identified on the package only as an "Ex-Talk Show Host" mask; "Inside it smells like tears," said sidekick Andy Richter, who remains the person who brings out the best in O'Brien.
A youth-friendly troika of Seth Rogen, Lea Michele and Jack White
comprised the night's guests. These segments, though they were a little
giddy, as befitted the night, were also fairly standard talk-show
exchanges, built around a few clearly prepped subjects, with effusive
expressions of mutual regard. Rogen discussed his engagement,
Proposition 19 and getting in shape to play the Green Hornet; Michele
commented on her controversial GQ photo shoot. White and O'Brien —
inaugurating his new show, as he closed down his last one, with a
guitar in his hand — played Eddie Cochran's "20 Flight Rock," from an album they made together.
"That was fast," O'Brien said at the end of the hour. Jay Leno's name had not come up.
When: 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children
under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse
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