So it happened! Conan O’Brien finally returned to TV, this time taking his talents to the basic cable shores of TBS. The anticipation was palpable, and at 11pm EST Monday night we turned our TVs to see the redhead comedian’s triumphant, cathartic, possibly historic, debut.
And then at midnight, after Conan finished jamming with buddy Jack White, he signed off and George Lopez came on, an hour later than usual, but, with Daylight Saving time having just gone into effect, perhaps completely in line with our circadian rhythms.
And, well, the world had not changed.
Which was completely to be expected. To imagine that Conan was going to suddenly redefine the late night format is foolish. So it was surprising that some of the criticism following his first show, or at least the general reaction, is that it was just like his old show. And his older show. Well, yeah. What did you think was going to happen?
By moving to TBS, Conan might forever change the late night landscape, allowing for a successful late night program on a basic cable station. The ratings from last night, with Conan beating Dave and especially Jay, show that we’re living in a brave new TV world. But a) those ratings won’t hold up (more on that later), and b) while Conan may have altered the medium, he hasn’t altered the message. Despite operating with a new, and welcome, angry edge, Conan is going to preside over the same kind of show he did during his brief tenure on The Tonight Show, and the same sort of program he eventually settled into on Late Night. On basic cable, freed from the shackles of NBC, and, perhaps more importantly, liberated from the golden calf that was The Tonight Show, that tempting siren, Conan will be wackier, zanier, more Conan. But his style his more absurdist than dirty, so being on cable is not about being more graphic, but being more adventurous, more bizarre. Certainly, he’ll need a few shows, if not a few weeks or months to get his hosting legs back and find the tone of this show. He’ll get there eventually. But to suggest, or expect, that he was going to go out there on night one and turn the late night paradigm on its head is unfair and misguided.
And now a few quick thoughts:
– So happy that Conan kept the beard. Not only does it give him much-needed snarl (and an air of confidence), but it balances his undulating wave of red hair perfectly.
– No offense to Seth Rogen, but they couldn’t get Tom Hanks as the first guest? I know he’s going to be on tonight, but still. C’mon, man. Hanx! Or Sidney Poitier. One of the two.
– What should also have come as a surprise to no one, Andy Richter was at the top of his game, arguably delivering the best lines of the night. It makes you realize what Late Night was missing during those final years when Richter stepped away, and even more so it makes you angry at Fox and NBC for failing to stick with his comedy vehicles, both of which were brilliant (we’ll cut Fox a little slack on Andy Richter Controls the Universe because they at least gave it a second (albeit, short) season, but we’ll grant no such clemency to NBC, who never gave Andy Barker PI the chance it deserved. Another season and it could have fit perfectly into their Thursday night comedy block. But we digress).
– While Conan had a particularly strong monologue, mining similar territory he exploited at the end of his Tonight Show run and during his live tour, it was the same old Conan in that he is still not entirely comfortable leading an interview, especially when he doesn’t have someone on the same wavelength to riff with (and, again, no offense, but Seth Rogen is not that person). While not just a facilitator of plugging TV shows and films like the shill that Leno has proven to be, O’Brien sometimes seems to awkwardly race through a series of bullet pointed questions, instead of guiding the conversation on a logical, natural course. In contrast, last night on The Late Show Letterman put on a master class in interview technique, managing to coax 20 minutes from Harrison Ford, and somehow moving effortlessly from a back-to-back height contest to a discussion about Ford’s relief efforts in Hati (while on the subject, what’s up with Harrison Ford? When did he become our Grandpa? And we mean that in both good and bad ways).
– The best part of the hour was undoubtedly the cold open (and did you catch that Obama reference? Perhaps a nod to yesterday’s post?). We think it’s safe to say that O’Brien will continue to excel with these kinds of pieces, while also easing back into his hosting duties.Vodpod videos no longer available.
But since we like to view everything with our own skewed view, beyond the nuts and bolts of the show, what is most intriguing to us is (as was evident in yesterday’s post) the excitement leading up the show, and whether or not it will be sustained. In the hours leading up the show Facebook was teeming with status updates touting O’Brien’s return, exclamations like “Only 2 hours to go!” and “Team Coco!” and “So excited for Conan tonight” and “The wait is over!” And the wait is over, and as noted earlier, those young, tech savvy, social media using consumers did turn out in droves last night. But will they stick around? We haven’t seen nearly as many Conan postings on Facebook or Twitter today, although that’s certainly to be expected.
And the ratings can certainly be counted on to come back down to earth, if not tonight, or the next night, then soon. But even then will Conan still beat, or at least stay on par with Dave and Jay? Maybe, but it’ll be tough. And here’s why: Jon Stewart. Much was made over the fact that last week, for the first time in decades, a show other than The Tonight Show or The Late Show led late night in the 18-49 demo. That The Daily Show airs 30 minutes before those shows didn’t seem to matter greatly to many of the people who thought that Jon Stewart’s ratings victory meant a monumental shift in late night. We don’t quite buy into that hyperbole, especially since those shows are not direct competitors. But The Daily Show and Conan are, not just for the time slot but for the same viewers. What has elevated The Daily Show has been its loyal following of young, active, internet-addicted viewers. The very same slice of the population that helped turn Team Coco into a phenomenon. Conan won the first round last night, but should one bet that he’ll hold onto those viewers? We wouldn’t.
Because unlike Conan, Jon Stewart fundamentally changed late night. And only he offers something truly original, and something truly profound and relevant that resonates with young viewers. Conan is great at what he does, and he’ll enjoy a long, successful run on TBS, or a brief, successful run and then a return to network TV. But what he offers is still something traditional. Uniquely Conan, but far short of groundbreaking.
So, really, we can forget about Dave and Jay. It’s going to come down to who can win the battle for young viewers, the Jew or the redhead (but not the Italian).