Conan O’Brien’s back, and he’s pretty much the same as he ever was – and that’s funny.
If there was anything surprising about last night’s premiere of ‘Conan’ on TBS, it’s that there wasn’t really much of anything surprising. Sure, there was an awesome five-minute opening segment, a new set (complete with a giant remote-control moon!) to take in and a beard to get used to, but the show as a whole was pretty much the same thing O’Brien’s always done – a straight up talk show in his usual style. In fact, it almost felt like there wasn’t enough tomfoolery. Or maybe after that much hype and anticipation, nothing he did would have been enough.
The bits that were there, though, were absolutely stellar. The cold opening showed O’Brien sitting at a desk on the phone, telling NBC to “go to hell” for asking him to move ‘The Tonight Show’ to midnight, and their response was to unleash a comical amount of machine gun fire on him and his old Ford Taurus. Cue a series of attempts to find another job, including Burger King, clowning, and applying at Sterling Cooper from ‘Mad Men’ with Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, who turns him down because “It’s 1965. You’re two years old.” In despair, O’Brien ponders throwing himself off a bridge, until Larry King appears as a guardian angel with two words of wisdom: “basic cable.”
His monologue was short and sweet, with no direct mention of Jay Leno. Here’s what he said:
“Thank you. Thank you and welcome to my 2nd Annual first show. Yes, I know what you guys are thinking, ‘Hey, it’s the guy from Twitter.’ Welcome to my new show, it’s called ‘Conan.’ People ask me why I named the show ‘Conan.’ I did it so I’d be harder to replace. This is an exciting night, though. I’m glad to be on cable, I have to tell you that right now. It’s not a joke. The truth is, I’ve dreamed of being a talk show host on basic cable ever since I was 46. And things are going well already. I’m happy to report, I just got this news, that we’re already #1 in TBS’s key demographic — people who can’t afford HBO. We did it. I’m going to be honest, though: It’s not easy doing a late-night show on a channel without a lot of money and that viewers have trouble finding. So that’s why I left NBC. But the weird thing is this: I put myself and my staff through this crazy huge ordeal all because I refused to go on at midnight. So I get this job at eleven, supposed to be a big deal. Then, yesterday, Daylight Savings Time ended — so right now it’s basically midnight. What the hell was that all about? I’m an idiot! I’m a moron! Now, a lot’s happened in the news since I went off the air — and I was wanted to cover it all in one joke. But then I realized that’s like trying to keep an Icelandic volcano from wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress while a trapped Chilean miner cleans up the BP oil spill… comma, Brett Favre’s penis.”
Watch Conan’s Cold Open Here:
He also quickly put to rest the talk about whether or not he could use any of his old characters by showing us what the Masturbating Bear has been up to during the layoff – picking the super-lotto numbers out of his diaper. So gloriously wrong. Word is that NBC isn’t going to put up much of a fight over their intellectual property (save for Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, apparently, who will be sorely missed if that’s true), so O’Brien should be safe from lawsuits so far.
Some of us were expecting a taped comedy bit from Will Ferrell, since he appeared on Conan’s last ‘Late Night’ and his first and last ‘Tonight Shows,’ but instead there was a video bit from Ricky Gervais offering sympathies for Conan’s expected string of TV failures that was pretty cute. Also of note: there was no mention of Max Weinberg, who has parted company with his old cohorts. Andy Richter, however, was on the couch at Conan’s side and on fire, especially when lampooning the fact that the Conan Halloween mask is being marked as an “Ex-Talk Show Host” mask. Richter nailed it by saying it looked like some kind of Asian Val Kilmer, and when he put it on, he claimed the inside of it “smells like tears.”
Seth Rogen was his first celebrity guest (after bestowing the official “First Guest” honor on Arlene Wagner, the curator of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum as part of a rigged online voting contest), and he’s the one who really pushed the boundaries of what can and can’t be said on basic cable television. He broke the “s–t” rule a couple of times and those were bleeped, but he managed to get in the word “titties” in while relating a story about how he proposed to his fiancee.
Lea Michele of ‘Glee’ was very pleasant as well, and Conan revealed he’s a big fan of her show. She glossed over her controversial GQ photo shoot, just saying “I don’t think we ever thought it was going to ever be as big of a deal as it became. We were just having fun and obviously never intended to upset or offend anybody.” Yet, in a sign of growing pains on the new show, there was an audible thump from backstage during her interview, and Conan joked that they saved money by building their set next to a muffler shop.
Then, in what is perhaps a sign of how this show will have a looser feel than in the past, he took off his tie, slung a guitar over his shoulder and played a stompin’ rockabilly number alongside Jack White of The White Stripes, with whom he put out a live album called “Live at Third Man” as well as a spoken word record “And They Called Me Mad.”
Overall, the show felt like an “A-” grade, addressing all the hullabaloo hilariously and riding the wave of good will back onto the airwaves. Great fun, but with room for improvement as well – something that will definitely come once the gang gets back into the swing of cranking out goofy characters and outlandish sketches. C’mon back tomorrow and we’ll see what Tom Hanks brings to the party.