One of the early posts on this blog was about the mess NBC created early this year when they fired Conan O’Brien as host of The Tonight Show and brought back Jay Leno. My feelings from January remain the same—Leno left The Tonight Show, his primetime show failed, he should be the one getting canned. NBC, however, has apparently built a ski chalet up Leno’s ass that they are loathe to relinquish. So Conan got the boot. After some wrangling and tussling in the media, Conan and NBC settled. Conan received a huge severance package (about $30-35 million for himself and around $12 million for his staff, as his writers and producers left with him) and he agreed to stay off network television for the next nine months.
Well now he’s back.
At the end of my post in January I wrote, “Fox, ABC—heck, even one of you cable networks—give Conan some money and some time and watch him wrought brilliant revenge on NBC and Leno.” He ended up signing a deal to host a late night show on TBS—truly, basic cable seems a better fit for Conan, whose humor ranges into the blue and subversive, and by all accounts TBS has given him carte blanche with his show format. Conan is keeping it traditional but the new eponymous show has a feeling that Conan’s Tonight Show never did—it feels like Conan.
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Conan is a tremendous comedy writer and when left to his own devices there is very much a “Conan O’Brien comedy aesthetic” that comes through in his shows. That vibe felt a little stifled on The Tonight Show, like there were some characters, sketches, or jokes he couldn’t do because of the earlier timeslot or the “venerable” image of The Tonight Show. It’s only one episode in, but Conan already feels like a return to the Conan we knew and loved in late night. His cold opening was great—a Godfather parody about his exit from NBC—and his monologue was both positive on his new venture with TBS (although you can tell he’s going to ride the idea that TBS has no money forever) and harsh-but-not-as-bitter about NBC.
After a brief appearance by the “Nutcracker lady” Arlene Wagner, curator of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum (which must be an unbearable creepy place—I hate nutcrackers), Conan welcomed Seth Rogen as his second guest—or second-first guest, really, since he didn’t interview Wagner. Rogen and Conan discussed Rogen proposing to his girlfriend while she was topless, Rogen put the Bleep Button to use early in the interview, and they concluded by talking about how easy it is to get medical marijuana in California. It was a funny interview, and it never would have happened on NBC.
The icing on the cake is the ratings. Conan scored a huge 4.5 million viewers, with a median age of just 30 (advertising bonanza begins now!). His opening-night audience was bigger and younger than anyone else’s in late night, including new late night king Jon Stewart. Will these numbers hold? No, but hopefully they remain strong (just as long as he beats Leno—that’s all anyone cares about) and I have every faith they will. We love Conan. NBC underestimated how much in January but TBS will never undervalue this audience.
I’m Team Coco. I always have been, I always will be, and I will never quite relinquish my dream of writing a joke for Conan O’Brien. Last January I had to say goodbye to Conan but today I get to say—Welcome back.