The First 'Conan': O'Brien Takes Baby Steps Toward Something New
On his first night at TBS, Conan O'Brien had an audience, a monologue, a big desk, a band, celebrity guests ... everything you'd expect from your basic late-night talk show.
On the other hand, he also played the guitar and sang with Jack White, showed off a real Halloween mask of himself that was on sale this season (labeled "Ex-Talk Show Host"), and busted out one of his oddest and most beloved NBC bits, the Masturbating Bear. (There's been a lot of talk about whether he could use the bear, but think about the position it would put NBC in to sue over that particular thing. Talk about grist for the joke mill.)
In short, Conan wasn't taking any major risks on the first night, but he did bring some of the low-budget, off-kilter sensibility that his fans care about and expect.
There was more focus on his departure from NBC than was probably wise -- if he's smart, he'll put that entire topic to bed immediately -- but it led to one of the best jokes of the evening, from a pre-taped bit in which an unemployed Conan tried to get a job from Mad Men's Don Draper, who noted first that he had no advertising experience and then added, "And it's 1965. You're two years old." To the show's credit, all the jokes presented his departure as what it was: his own refusal to move to midnight, rather than a sudden firing where he had absolutely no choice.
First shows are so tricky, especially on a new network at a new time with the potential for a new audience. You don't want to be emulating Jay Leno if you're trying to snag a younger demographic that has made it clear it doesn't have much interest in Jay Leno. But you don't want to be too weird out of the gate, because you know you're being sampled by a wide variety of people, and you don't want to give large swaths of them a reason to tune out.
Conan's first show suggested that there's a lot of calculation going on, as you'd expect: How do we keep the rabid fans we have, offer something to the curious who caught the wave of publicity over the summer, and save a place for ourselves in the Leno/Letterman chat-show world? The problem is that difference-splitting of that kind seemed to be exactly what went wrong with Conan's Tonight Show. Those last shows he did at NBC, when he got away from the need to calculate and threw everything at the wall, were the best ones of his run.
Taking a safe approach to a first show is easy to understand. Conan's original late-night NBC run started slowly and built; it could absolutely happen at TBS, too. The guy is never going to be under as much of a microscope as he is this morning, no matter how long he's at this job. Trying to get too off-the-wall and quirky could easily have blown up in his face if it didn't work perfectly, as much as critics will want today to wish he'd have taken more risks.
But ultimately, if he's going to succeed the way he wants to, he is going to have to take more risks and not try too hard to fill everybody's order at once like he's a short-order cook with twenty arms and a really big grill. Eventually, you can't serve everybody; you have to do what you do well and be confident that there's a customer for it.
It's as true in making television as it is in life: to succeed, you have to relax, and to relax, you have to stop worrying about doing absolutely everything right. It's ironic and cyclical, and it confounds talk-show hosts as much as it confounded the overachievers you knew in college.
There was promise in this first show. Conan is still twitchy and strange in a way that can be very endearing. He's still got a great touch with face-pulling comedy, and he's more warmly accessible, certainly, than a guy like David Letterman. But the more he can recapture that playhouse feeling from the late-late shows not very many people watched (a feeling that current late-late hosts Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson have both mastered), the better off he's going to be. Nobody is watching Conan on TBS hoping to see a Leno/Letterman imitator, so the less he ties himself to the limitations of that format, the better.
It was a fine beginning to what could be a good show. But it was only a beginning.