Conan's Back: Is His Third Show The Charm?

Conan O'Brien i i

A three-dimensional moon sways behind Conan during his new late night talk show on TBS. TBS hide caption

itoggle caption TBS
Conan O'Brien

A three-dimensional moon sways behind Conan during his new late night talk show on TBS.


They say you never get a second chance to make a good first impression — but if you're a TV talk-show host, that rule doesn't always hold. Every time you launch a new show, you get more attention and more reviews — and usually more viewers — than at almost any other time. But after that opening night, as viewers decide what's changed and what hasn't and what's appealing and what isn't, things start to level off quickly.

The first time Conan hosted a talk show, virtually no one knew who he was. He was building his comic identity from scratch, and without much support from NBC. The second time, when he inherited The Tonight Show, ratings for the first few nights were very solid — but then the more conservative viewing audience decided Conan was an acquired taste they were in no hurry to acquire. Conan tried to alter the show to appeal to the mainstream, but didn't succeed — and, once again, didn't get much support from NBC.

But now he's on basic cable, where things are just a little looser, and where Conan O'Brien can play to his audience, doing what he wants to do. That's the theory. In practice, however — in Monday's opening show — there seemed to be more constraints and stiffness, not less.

This was Conan's third chance to make a good first impression, and I'm sorry to say, this time he feels flat. As flat as his interview segments — which were painful to watch.

The celebrity guests for the opening night of Conan were Seth Rogen — seemingly a solid-gold booking for Conan's college-age stoner fans — and Lea Michele, the Glee star who has similarly strong appeal for a younger audience. And the musical guest was Jack White, who played an old rockabilly tune with Conan and the show's Basic Cable Band.

The music was fine and energetic and fun. The conversations were not.

Both guests were guided, rather awkwardly, through their prepared stories. Rogen talked about proposing to his girlfriend and joked about the ease of getting a prescription for medical marijuana in California; Michele talked about no one being aware of her singing talent until she tried out for her first Broadway audition — a story that lost its punch when she explained that she was 8 years old at the time. Conan also asked about her controversial recent photo spread in GQ magazine, but that was only to set up a bit where a high school picture of himself was inserted into the photograph.

Conan O'Brien i i

Now that Conan's back on basic cable, says David Bianculli, he can play to his audience, doing what he wants to do. TBS hide caption

itoggle caption TBS
Conan O'Brien

Now that Conan's back on basic cable, says David Bianculli, he can play to his audience, doing what he wants to do.


But at least it was a visual. Otherwise, the guests arrived empty-handed. Rogen was promoting his next movie, but he didn't have a clip because the movie is still two months away. Michele didn't show a clip from tonight's installment of Glee because — well, I don't know why.

What I do know is that the parts worth watching, much less remembering,  were few. An opening filmed piece that traced his move from NBC to TBS was OK — but not the caliber you'd expect from a piece they had months to prepare. I still remember how Conan opened his version of The Tonight Show running across country because he'd forgotten to move from New York to L.A.

I liked Conan's musical and vocal duet with Jack White on Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock." And I liked portions of Conan's monologue, where, on occasion, he delivered the sort of warped perspective that I've come to expect.

But the rest?

Andy Richter, returning as sidekick, added better conversational ad-libs than Conan did, but their exchanges often seem to exclude rather than embrace the audience. And all that fuss about the background set, with its three-dimensional moving moon? That reminded me of opening night on Chevy Chase's talk show on Fox, where he made a big deal out of the fact that he had a real tropical fish tank behind him, with real tropical fish.

It quickly became obvious on that show that the fish were the only thing worth watching. If the scenery on Conan is more fun than the guests — and on opening night, it was — something is starting out very, very wrong.

David Bianculli is founder and editor of and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.



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