The First Episode Of Conan: A Review

Gabe Delahaye | November 9, 2010 - 11:00 am

Late night talk shows, at least historically, are built for longevity, and so writing a review of the first episode of a decades-long institution (hypothetically speaking) is kind of beside the point. It would be like writing a review of a BLOG based on its first post. Not that anyone should ever write a review of a blog based on anything. Who cares. But you know what I mean. Actually, to carry the comparison a little further, late night talk shows are probably the most blog-like shows on television: they’re a specifically cumulative product. The amount of work it takes to write a daily television program (and to a lesser extent, a daily website) is so exhausting that even the casual viewer inherently recognizes that some days will be a hit and some days will be a miss. It is the way in which the show spans time, creates its own history and mythology, momentarily inserts itself into the larger culture from time to time before retreating once more, builds up and then discards characters, and freezes moments from one week to the next like a perpetually self-burying time capsule that makes a late night talk show what it is intended to be.

On the other hand, one can safely assume that the first episode(s) of a new late night talk show is going to work very hard to hit the ground running. It won’t be the best we’re ever going to see, but it won’t be the worst either. On top of that, Conan isn’t exactly new to the late night field. NOT EXACTLY. Almost? No, not even almost. He has been doing this for 200 years, and his return to form is a highly anticipated media event. So? So:

It was pretty good! It was a late night talk show! Very much so. It was almost aggressive how much of a late night talk show it was. There’s the desk and the moonlit backdrop and the monologue curtain and the cutaways to the shadowy audience and the bandstand and everything. Not that anyone expected, or at least should have expected, anything different. FULL DISCLOSURE FOR JOURNALISM: I know a couple of people who work on this show, and one of them was telling me that people would constantly press the writers on how they were going to change everything up, and this same friend explained how much work it was to explain that you can’t just change everything, and that there are certain reasons why forms persist. This is true! One need only look to the first week of The Jay Leno Show in which he discarded the desk in favor of conducting interview chairo-e-chairo as if that would somehow make young people give a fuuuuuuuuuck about Jerry Seinfeld’s stories about how his wife definitely did plagiarize her cookbook. “Young people HATE desks,” one can imagine someone saying in that planning meeting.

A late night talk show, in the end, is a late night talk show. Mess with the format too much and it will become something else, which could be good or bad, it just wouldn’t be a late night talk show. Which is what this is.

The problem, of course, is that it is a late night talk show in 2010. I have a suspicion that the great Conan O’Brien versus Jay Leon Late Night War will come to be seen as the end of late night television. It’s last great gasp. And I don’t mean the end because they somehow ruined it. What happened on NBC last winter was a new event in the history of The Tonight Show, but it was certainly nothing new entertainment-wise, and hundreds of careers have been made and lost and/or just simply withstood similar upheavals with far less fanfare. It will mark the end of late night television because late night television is an antiquated format in a particularly hostile media environment for things that seem even remotely antiquated. It will be impossible for any late night television show or host to ever create as much interest as that “scandal” created. It peaked. And after things peak, they go downhill.

There is a counter-argument* to this, of course. In thinking about last night’s episode of Conan, I revisited the discussion of the debut episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. We have the benefit of hindsight now to know that Jimmy Fallon is doing a really nice job over there (although I still have a hard time watching his celebrity interviews, but also I am 55 years old, what do I care about a celebrity interview conducted by ANYONE?) but it’s interesting to go back and look at that first episode and see how many elements were already in place. Admittedly, just having the Roots as his house band has basically made that show what it is, but so what? Good! That was a really smart decision! More people working in mass entertainment should make smart decisions! But again, going back to that first episode: they had Slow Jamming the News and a short film by AD Miles and a weird sketch with Robert DeNiro that was admittedly hit or miss but was definitely a strong opening gambit. But most importantly: in that very first episode, they had an audience participation game. It wasn’t mind-blowing, or even that funny, but it did hint at the way in which that show would engage with its viewers, especially through the Internet, in a way that was very smart and very successful. The walls between professional entertainment and amateur consumers are not actually coming down. They are still very much there. But people like to FEEL like those walls are coming down, and Jimmy Fallon (et staff) has mastered that illusion in a way that actually DOES keep their show, despite it being a late night talk show, relevant and “new.”

Conan: not so much.

The extent to which the real-but-illusory-but-real-but-illusory wall is not coming down on the new show was made evident in a bit where the audience was supposedly invited to vote on-line for who Conan’s first guest would be, only to have it turn out to be a pre-written comedy bit prepared in a windowless writing room filled with discarded Red Bull cans. It was funny enough, that’s not the issue. But as Conan himself acknowledged in the set-up, he was making fun of the very nerds who had “saved his ass” earlier this year. This, of course, is also not true. Conan O’Brien is a HUGELY BANKABLE talent who was always going to get another job before he even made a dent in his multi-million dollar checking account. But there certainly was a groundswell of primarily-nerd-based support during his public humiliation. They’re not going to abandon Conan just because he does a very solid nerd impression (it’s really very good, he definitely has the nerds dead to rights), they’re going to abandon Conan because at the end of the day there’s a new World of Warcraft expansion pack to unlock, and because nerds have gotten used to their role as People to Be Pandered to By Hollywood for Some Reason and love to exercise their Complain and Shun Rights.

This is not to suggest that Conan needs to cater to nerds. The nerds need a reality check anyways. Relax, nerds. The revolution will not be on Reddit. It is just to point out that while late night forms are late night forms and a late night show, as mentioned, is a late night show, he is at the beginning of a new venture, with a certain populist-breeze at his back, and he should take full advantage. JACK IN, DUDE! You know Kung Fu! The Matrix is literally BEGGING Conan to slow bullets with his hands. In the interim between the Tonight Show and Conan, he made full use of Twitter and YouTube because the Internet was his only medium of communication with his audience, but just because he’s back on TV now doesn’t mean he should give that medium up**. It felt a little last night like he was excited to shake himself free from the dregs of the WEB, but that would be a mistake.

Other thoughts about last night’s episode:

The opening segment was good. It was funny and it addressed the whole FIRED thing, which needed to be addressed. So I was a little disappointed that Conan then spent the entire monologue dinging pot shots off the starboard bow of the S.S. NBC (and it was honestly just retarded when the audience loudly booed the network’s name at some later point, like some kind of Flash Mob of Impotence). Obviously, Conan has to get that stuff out of his system, I just hope he actually GETS IT OUT OF HIS SYSTEM FINALLY. (Wasn’t that what the whole tour was for?) You’ve got a show now, dude. Enough. (Not that I like REGULAR monologue joke segments either? It’s all a bit sticky.)

I like the set! The backdrop looks nice with its moon and ocean! Of course, it all feels very familiar, because it is, and I can imagine that for the people desperate to see Conan back on the air there’s a certain sense of anti-climax. “Oh, right, a late night talk show. You know, I do have to get up pretty early tomorrow for…something.” You do have to worry a little bit (but only a little, we’re still talking about TELEVISION) that if the best that Conan can hope for is to regain the spirited independence and creative freedom that he had at Late Night, but with less budget and a shrinking basic cable-combined-with-streaming-ughloads audience, then he might be slipping backwards through the sands of time. Quick! Jump over those punji sticks and jam the dagger into the magic crystal!

There was a Jon Hamm cameo:

And a Ricky Gervais cameo:

The Masturbating Bear made an appearance.

You can watch Conan play guitar with Jack White here. He sat down for an interview after the song and was almost TOO comfortable? Just kidding? Just kidding.

Seth Rogen has Benjamin Button disease but for fat.

And I don’t even know who this is but she seems VERY cool and not annoying at all.

It was, in a word, a show.

My favorite part of the night was when Andy Richter was invited to sit on the couch next to Conan before the guests came out. It was just like old(est) times. As with most late night talk show consumers, I hit my peak in my freshman and sophomore years of college. This is when I had both the free time, the general interest, and the after hours schedule to make watching a late night television show an attractive activity. I watched Conan most nights back then. Often times, because even at the age of 20, I did not have much use for celebrity interviews (although I still remember Conan’s conversation with Steve Zahn about sitting on a porch to be one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen) I would just watch the two opening segments with Conan and Andy chatting on the couch. They were great together, and I hope they can reclaim some of that previous magic. Not necessarily for me. I will almost certainly be asleep or at the doctor’s office asking for medicines. But there are always 20 year olds out there who need something to do in the middle of the night. They could choose worse than to watch two wonderful comedians make comedy together. And then when Snooki comes on to talk about her new self-help book, look around. There’s probably a re-run of Family Guy on somewhere, right?



*The counter-argument can actually be carried even further along these lines, which is to say that for as much as late night talk shows are an antiquated medium, they are also, besides maybe sketch comedy shows, which practically do not exist anyway, the television format BEST suited to remaining relevant in an Internet age. They are segmented into easily digestible fragments, they feature celebrities and musical guests, and they often incorporate at least a few laffs per minute. If done right, they can basically be an hour long stitching together of so many viral videos. So, there’s that.
**It should be pointed out that I am not suggesting Conan interact regularly with the Internet because I myself work on the Internet. It is well documented that I hope this whole thing gets shut down, burned to a crisp, and buried in an old aircraft carrier at the bottom of Whoops Ocean to become a coral reef. I’m suggesting that he interact regularly with the Internet because it’s called being realistic about the way things work now.