Conan O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour” At Radio City Music Hall: A Review
This isn’t Cigar Fancy magazine. I don’t need to rehash the entire drama of the Late Night Wars of 2010 as a preamble to talking about last night’s Conan O’Brien live show at Radio City Music Hall. We all know how those Late Night Wars of 2010 turned out. We were there. But, I will take a brief moment to remind everyone how we all (or how we many) felt at the end of the Late Night Wars of 2010, after Conan O’Brien nobly ceded his still newly assumed role as host of the Tonight Show to egomaniacal denim-skinned greed monster, Jay Leno. If you will recall, the Internet stood in almost uniform support of the absurdist comedian talk show host, who seemed to have been rudely forced out of his dream job by a collection of money-hungry corporate automatons with their robot chicken heads cut off, scrambling to make the “best” out of a situation they had themselves made the worst. Whether or not their strategy made sense from a business perspective, it landed as an insult to and refutation of the millions of pale, shivering, white nerds who had found a kindred spirit in Conan O’Brien, despite the fact that his job had always been, ultimately, to sell advertising space on a major television network that has been owned for a quarter century by General Electric, who funnel that money into the global war machine. (BUT THAT IS FOR ANOTHER REVIEW.) I was right there with everyone. I watched Conan O’Brien every night in college, when I was at an age where watching Conan O’Brien every night seemed like a reasonable thing to do with one’s time. And I found the end results of the Late Night Wars 2010 to be a disheartening confirmation of this country’s/world’s enthusiastic embrace of aggressive mediocrity. Team Conan O’Brien! His Internet support was like the campaign to get Betty White to host Saturday Night Live, except with an actual purpose and understandable motivations and without a lick of irony.
And it is in light of this collective outpouring of excitement and support rallying around the gangly Conan O’Brien and throwing itself futilely but enthusiastically against the gray-faced wall of bland, corporate disinterest, that I hesitate to even discuss how disappointed I was by last night’s live show at Radio City Music Hall. But first, can we discuss this bathroom situation?
Last night was my first time at Radio City Music Hall. It’s gorgeous! Radio City Music Hall is literally breathtaking in the way that only massive manmade structures can be. Don’t get me wrong, the Grand Canyon is also gorgeous and breathtaking, but God made that, and we kind of expect that level of craftsmanship from Him at this point, you know? (Just kidding, He doesn’t exist.) But large, human spaces filled with history are something special, and if you aren’t in awe of them when you are inside of them (which is what she said) then you’re doing it wrong (which is also what she said). And it is with all of that beauty and collected human experience under one gilded, art deco roof that I ask the question: Radio City Music Hall Mens’ Room, can we not get some splash guards up in there? It’s 2010. We aren’t the broken shells of war-ravaged animals picked clean by the vultures of the Great Depression anymore. HOW ABOUT A MODICUM OF URINAL PRIVACY WHEN THE TICKETS COST $100. Now I know how this guy must have felt:
Where am I, a baseball game?
Even before it started, the whole point of the show was kind of brought into question. I mean, what is this, and why? I don’t mean that in the cynically dismissive sense, I mean that in the actual question sense. Why do people want to pay (a lot of) money to see Conan O’Brien live on stage? For the entirety of his public career, he has been known for quick, small-bore comedy routines, and interviewing celebrities. And he was great at it, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into this…whatever this is. He’s not Beyonce. In terms of crafting a live stage performance for a massive venue, he’s not even Kelly Rowland. Don’t get me wrong, I bought my ticket as soon as tickets were available for buying. I was sitting in that room waiting for the lights to go down just as much as anyone else. But you still have to wonder. I think, in the end, that last night’s event (and all of the events that Conan has put on around the country) have been a celebration of, and a weird acknowledgement of, our collective obsession with television. The fluttering, screamy excitement that borders on PANIC that people seem to experience whenever they are even in the same MASSIVE DOME-CEILINGED TENS-OF-THOUSANDS-OF-SEATS VENUE as someone who has been on TV is mind-crushing. It is the same Energy Crystal that has powered reality television, and the resulting collapse of finding satisfaction and value in one’s own life. Yay? Throw your hands in the air?
I’m not trying to take anyone to Duh University. It’s a bit grandiose to read the entirety of America’s unhealthy obsession with celebrity, and the systemic negative influence of television into a one-off promotional tour for a between-jobs comedian who spent the last 17 years entertaining millions of people on a nightly basis with a surprisingly refreshing and off-brand sense of humor for a mainstream television show, even a mainstream television show that didn’t air until 1:30 in the morning on some syndicated networks. I’m just saying: it is kind of weird when you think about it! It is also weird to have the line between the collective privacy of a television audience and the communal public experience of a live show erased. This is Conan O’Brien’s audience? And I am a member of this group? As people filed to their seats, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dave Matthews and P.O.D. played on the loudspeakers, which was about as harsh of a judgement as could be passed on any audience. This is WHAT you want. This is WHO you are. Blame YOURSELF! (Incidentally, due to the size of the venue and poor eyesight, I spent most of the time, and I am guessing I was not alone, watching what was happening on stage on GIANT TELEVISIONS, but the meaning of that is for someone smarter to unpack and explain.)
Reggie Watts opened, and he was great. It is exciting for him to be on this tour and for a whole new audience to be exposed to him. I hope that something really great comes out of this for him, although it seems like something great is always coming out of everything for Reggie Watts, so. The point is: Reggie Watts: very solid. Very opening.
After a brief intermission (already?!), it was time for the actual show, which opened with a short video of Conan O’Brien in a long beard and a fat suit, lying in a pile of half-eaten pizzas and empty beer bottles, waiting for a call from “Showbusiness.” Fair enough. Although, the montage that followed, in which he solemnly bounced on a trampoline, and selected numerous bottles of wine from a well-stocked wine-rack, and checked his mailbox at the end of a long, private driveway, really only served as a reminder that he was a multi-millionaire with a BEAUTIFUL house. And some of us find ourselves lying in a pile of half-eaten pizzas and empty beer bottles EVEN WHEN WE STILL HAVE A JOB. And that is the crux of it. You see, Conan O’Brien having been “fired” from his job is the reason his live show exists in the first place. It is the reason that people are so feverishly excited to see him. (Well, that and the fact that they are so feverishly excited to see anyone who is on TV. They gave a pretty intense welcome to Late Night band member La Bamba, too.) It is the elephant in the room, and it needed to be addressed. BUT IT WASN’T THE ROOM ITSELF. After the video, Conan spent, I don’t know, six hours, give or take, making monologue jokes about being jobless and having a thin resume and evil TV executives, to the point of exhaustion. He topped off this section with a slideshow in which he outlined the “Eight Steps of Grief” that accompany the loss of a late night talk show, which included a long-winded rant about how mad he is that he doesn’t have a TV show, while Kim Kardashian and the Ace of Cakes do. Well, OK, I guess, except guess what: NONE OF US HAVE FUCKING TV SHOWS YOU WHINY MOTHERFUCKER. And Ace of Cakes may be barf-inducingly smirky but he is also VERY TALENTED AT MAKING CAKES. We are on your side, Conan, insofar as you are an incredibly talented comedian and performer who got a (sort of) raw deal, but your raw deal is still better than ALL OF OUR DEALS COMBINED, so maybe at a certain point, enough with the self-absorbed crying and more with the relatable jokes.
During his final broadcast as host of the Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien made a genuinely moving speech in which he admitted his sadness over what had transpired, but how he also acknowledged the fact that his dreams had come true in ways that few people could ever imagine, and he urged his viewers, especially his young viewers, to eschew cynicism, and to confront the world with a heart full of hope and optimism. That message was almost completely destroyed by the time he played a pre-recorded video in which he portrayed an evil, bald television executive. I don’t care about television executives, but I do care about having an enjoyable time, and holding on to goodwill for as long as I can, and unfortunately this was about the time that I permanently stopped being able to do either of those things. The fact of the matter is that for the world outside of that amphitheater, and even for much of the world INSIDE that amphitheater, life goes on. Conan has certainly earned his bitter moment of retaliatory sniping, it just isn’t that enjoyable to watch. That’s why there aren’t TV shows about bitter middle-aged men. Because it’s uncomfortable. Actually, if Conan had taken to the stage and delivered an hour and a half long straight-faced rant about the things that made him angry during his ordeal, that would have been kind of interesting and enjoyable. But couched in road-weathered monologue jokes and the cloak of self-righteousness, the spirit of the show was leaden and grouchy and mean. In other words, it was the exact opposite of what we have come to expect from our beloved Conan O’Brien.
The show had its moments, for sure, obviously, of course, come on. The pre-taped Triumph video was probably the funniest part of the night, which makes sense, since pre-taped Triumph segments were the funniest part of Late Night, as well. And Conan’s use of the “The Chuck Norris Rural Policeman Handle” to show the always amazing clips of Walker, Texas Ranger clips was both delightful, and an opportunity for him to trot out some CELEBRITY GUESTS! (Last night featured: Bill Hader, Jon Krasinski, and Paul Rudd.) He ended, smartly, and correctly, with the most famous moment:
Yes. Smart. Correct.
There was also a performance from Vampire Weekend and a dance-off with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Fair enough. I guess that is where the $100 ticket charge comes in. Although, and maybe this is just the JADED NEW YORK CITY BIGSHOT coming out, but there was something inherently unimpressive about wrangling two people who tape TV shows just a few avenues away, no matter how great those TV shows are, and a band, no matter how big the band has gotten, from New Jersey. I don’t know. I want fireworks! I want excitement! I expect Conan O’Brien to have mimosas with these dudes (speaking of which: lotta dudes! DUDES ONLY, in fact. Was Tina Fey busy? How about Amy Poehler? How about Maya Rudolph, I will even accept Maya Rudolph!) when he comes to town, if they aren’t already too busy playing racquet ball. WITH EACH OTHER.
The show ended with a performance of “I Will Survive,” with new lyrics about SURVIVING THE LOSS OF YOUR TV SHOW, just in case after two hours of harping on it, people were still confused as to who Conan O’Brien was and why he was so self-absorbed. What could have been a celebratory evening of laughter and funtimes turned into the world’s most elaborate pity party. Yes, Conan came out for an encore and performed “The Weight,” by The Band, but even here the opportunity was lost, since by now it felt as if Conan was the one taking a load off, and putting it right on us, before running into the crowd for some high fives and hugs. You did it? You turned a moment of triumph into a moment of wallowing entitlement.
All in all, the evening just left me feeling kind of sad. If Conan O’Brien received a devastating blow last winter by NBC firing him and then scrubbing the entirety of his work from Hulu and forcing him into (multi-million-dollar) hiding, then this just felt like a self-inflicted kill shot. I will still be watching in the fall when he returns to television with a late night show on TBS Very Funny, and because his goodbye speech was SO genuine and SO touching, I will try to do so without cynicism in my heart. But something tells me that at least in some small way, at least for me*, the Conan O’Brien that we loved, the one who got us into that glorious masterpiece of human achievement that is Radio City Music Hall in the first place, that Conan O’Brien may be gone forever.