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Checking Up On Conan O'Brien

by Stephanie Earp, posted Feb 7th 2011 5:00PM


It was about a year ago that Conan O'Brien was basically ousted from his newly minted role as host of 'The Tonight Show.' For me, the whole incident is forever tied to the Vancouver Olympics, since as soon as the Games were over, we all knew that Jay 'Lantern Jaw' Leno would be back in his old seat at NBC.

Like many others, I supported O'Brien's cause. Looking back on it now, I realize I was incensed on behalf on my generation; Conan's plight was a vivid example of how we young folk labor for years under the promise of an eventual promotion, only to have it snatched away (or, at least, we feel like that's what happens). If NBC was truly bowing to audience pressure in reinstating Leno as host, it was a clear victory for the boomers in the intergenerational war.

I may have supported Conan, but the truth is I didn't watch him very much. I am far more familiar with his work on 'The Simpsons' than on late night, and that's still the case. 'Conan' airs at 1AM in Canada and I'm not often up to see it, but last week I decided I wanted to know how Conan was holding up under his new circumstances. A few espresso-induced, insomnia-ridden nights later, I'm a bit worried about our red-headed friend.

Conan looks a little tired, but considering what he's been through, that's no surprise. What's more upsetting is his jokes sound a little tired, too -- or at least familiar. Safely ensconced on his cheap set (which continues to be the butt of many jokes) it feels like he's pitching his performance not to those of us watching at home, or even to the live bodies in the theater, but solely to his sidekick, Andy Richter.

I can understand why. Getting a genuine, unrehearsed laugh out of deadpan Richter must feel good, but Conan's constant glances to his left to check on his friend give the impression he's not sure of himself. And there is nothing more deadly to a joke than a lack of confidence.



To be fair, Conan is famous for the self-deprecating stuff, but was he always so down on his own comedy? It's one thing to make cracks about your red hair, pale skin, massive head or bean-pole body, but my little 'Conan' marathon found Coco constantly running down his own jokes. It's all very meta, I guess -- jokes about how the jokes aren't working. In theory, I like the idea of pulling back the curtain on how a comedy show is put together, which is essentially what all this chit-chat about the cue cards does, but in practice, it stilts the monologue to the point where it's hard to let go and laugh. As always with O'Brien, the sketches are better, but count on a reference to the cheapness of the costumes or props to take you out of the moment.

So Conan looks tired and the setups are tired, but you know what's really exhausted? This format. It seems to me that Conan missed an incredible opportunity to re-think the entire idea behind a late-night talk show, the way Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have. I'm not at all suggesting that O'Brien get into the fake-news business, but at least Comedy Central has proven that there's more than one way to skin a late-night cat. Instead, 'Conan' is just another iteration of a format that reached its heyday in the 1970s, and O'Brien looks like he's still auditioning for Johnny Carson's job.

The whole late night rat race is a bit of mystery to me. You don't see the ladies of 'Gossip Girl' trying to work their way up to a spot on 'Grey's Anatomy.' The goal is to make a show -- or a character -- your own and to be successful on those terms. Conan achieved that with 'Late Night' and his ambition (along with Leno's) to be Carson is sort of what got him into this mess. If Conan really is as fresh and original as his reputation, this is the paradigm he should change: the idea that hosting 'The Tonight Show' is the Holy Grail.

And that's the thing about Conan O'Brien -- if anyone could break out of this cycle, it's him. I guess I just hoped he's be further along that road by now than he is.

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I agree with everything you've written. I've been a Conan fan since he first stepped onto the stage in the early 90s. But now, with this new show and as time passes by, the show seems to grow more and more stale. I don't know who is writing is jokes, but they are terrible! Maybe they can't afford to pay decent writers at TBS. I don't know what the problem is. I do know that the quality of the material just isn't there, and that is one layer of difficulty. I think Conan feels that lack of quality, and that it affects his confidence.

There is definitely something tangibly lacking.

There used to be a time when I wouldn't go a night without seeing Conan. Right now I have three episodes backed up on DVR, and I am dreading watching them.

But who do I turn to first? Jimmy Fallon.

I hope Conan gets it back; I really do. I don't know what has happened to cause the show to go so stale so quickly.

February 23 2011 at 3:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Love To Hate

Conan's monologue has always been miserable. Three or four jokes. He appologizes for how bad they are. Does a little dance. Then the terrible skits. The recurring characters like the masturbating bear. It's the same joke damn it but it was almost funny when I was half asleep. At 11:30, it's not funny. It makes you wonder all night long how you thought this used to be funny.

Conan shines with guests. Maybe it's just me, but it doesn't seem as rehearsed as the other talk shows. Conan can roll with an off topic comment. I always notice Jay Leno's incessant "yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah... yeah, yeah, yeah yeah."

These days I just wait for the clips of just the good stuff from any show to come up on the blogesphere. Sad to say, it's usually not a Conan clip.

February 09 2011 at 9:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mike

Leno is not funny anyone who thinks he is, needs to be introduced to new comedy, Conan however isnt as funny as he once was either. only shows worth watching now are Fallon and sometimes kimmel and ferguson.

February 08 2011 at 4:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mroechner

Conan , not funny and not worth watching anymore, neither is Jay Leno. maybe Conan should steal bits from Howard Stern show since he got no game anymore then he can be like Leno

February 08 2011 at 1:27 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
wpanevco

No need to analyze Conan, He never did have the talent Jay Leno's got.I cringed when I heard he was going to take over The Tonight Show and I was so glad to see him gone. He is so incrediby boring it's not even funny. I don't feel sorry for him one bit-he has made more money than any of us will make in a hundred lifetimes. He is where he should be in my opinion.

February 08 2011 at 10:06 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
Jonathan

is it me or does every tvsquad writer seem very negative?

February 08 2011 at 12:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jonathan's comment
glengdoyle

it's a 'young' thing.

February 08 2011 at 10:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ba Ba Bauf

Hard to fault Conan for pretty much doing the same show he's done for the past 17 years (with a whole lot of success). Yes, he could have chosen to "reinvent the wheel", but that's not what his "core" fans have ever really wanted from him. In fact, I personally believe his most loyal fans have just wanted him to do the same show they way he's always done it, which is why his tenure on "The Tonight Show" didn't work out (he tried too hard to change his style and go more mainstrem, and that alienated many of his original fans). With all that in mind, it's easy to understand why Conan decided not to drasticly alter his show for TBS.

Really, if Conan were to ask my opinion on how to possibly improve his new show (and I'm sure he'll be calling any second now), I would tell him to cut-out one guest per night, so go with one interview and one comedian/band, and spend the extra segment with an additional comedy-piece. Right now we get the monologue, one "desk bit", and then the rest of the show is guests. It would be nice if the shw were "monologue, desk bit, guest, desk bit, comedian/band". Other than that, it's hard to find to much fault with Conan's new show. He's basically doing what his fans wanted him to do, and it seems to work pretty well.

February 07 2011 at 11:28 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Emm2ThaEff

Your review is completely disingenuous. You admit that you were not a regular viewer of Conan's Late Night show and yet you judge it like you have something to compare it to - you don't have a frame of reference! For those of us who have watched since the beginning, it's obvious the TBS show is the best Conan has been in a long time. Everyone seems relaxed, the show is funny and its enjoyable to watch. I look forward to it, which is more than I can say about Leno or Letterman. The self-deprecation is one of the things we like about Conan - he doesn't take himself seriously, its part of his charm that makes an "every guy." You like the fake news better - ie Jon Stewart and Colbert - Whatever - THEN GO WATCH JON STEWART! Quit dissing Conan with your supposed objective review. And face it - Conan is beating Letterman, Leno, Stewart right now , even if by a small margin. The fact is, there is something for everybody out there, so you have an option.

Here's my review of your review - it's tired, the format is " oh I used to like him in this and he is a nice guy, but I really can't stand what he is doing now" we've heard it before ad nauseum, so please, we thought you would be farther along in your condescending attempts at criticism, "but if anyone can improve, we're betting on you!!" (said in my best Conan fake early 20th century voice for team Coco fans !) Gimme a break....

February 07 2011 at 8:33 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Emm2ThaEff's comment
aapljack

"And face it - Conan is beating Letterman, Leno, Stewart right now"

In what parallel universe?

February 08 2011 at 10:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
KRYPTONITE

I've tried to watch Conan several times. The man just isn't very funny.

February 07 2011 at 8:32 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
jefflyall

Conan who? It's amazing what a little vacation from network television has accomplished for Mr. O'Brien. It's like he never existed. No one talks or writes about him any longer--that is until I came across Ms. Earp's take on all things Conan. I was nearly gagging about her lament about her hard working generation and their inability to get ahead. Aw, gee whiz, Ms Earp, it's never been easy to get ahead in any business for any generation. The "suits" always triumph in America. Your generation is not any more special than any generation that preceded it. And as far as Mr. O'Brien's mistreatment of several million in severance while given an 8 month vacation, my empathy is, shall we say, no where to be found. Leno is kicking late night butt (although late night ratings are down across the board) making NBC feeling pretty smug about their decision. Love Leno or despise him, NBC made the right decision for their bottom line--television is not the arts; it's a business that is supported by ad revenue and ratings. Sometimes we are all lucky and a high quality program scores with reviewers and fans but it is usually the mediocre to poor ones that hang on forever. I am neither a fan of Leno nor O'Brien but I don't hate on either one of them as so many passionate fan boys and girls still do. I do agree with her one comment about O'Brien missing the boat altogether by not trying some new format for late night talk which is so predictable and formula driven: monologue, sketch, interview(s), musical performance, good night! Both his show and he seem tired and uninspiring.

February 07 2011 at 6:44 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to jefflyall's comment
Paul Little

Say what you want about Leno or Conan (and you say you're not a fan of either), but Leno isn't "kicking butt" and NBC definitely isn't "feeling pretty smug" about anything. In fact, Jay's 18-49 numbers (which are the numbers advertisers care about -- and you are right that's an ad-funded business) are identical to (and in some cases, slightly below) what Conan was bringing into "The Tonight Show". TVbythenumbers did a nice comparison chart comparing Leno and Letterman in 2011 to Conan and Letterman in 2010, and found that in most cases, Conan was at or just above Leno.

Conan's current ratings are about on par with Jon Stewart's, which makes sense -- they're both top stars with big fan bases, but are on cable, not network TV. But both their ratings are just barely behind Leno and Letterman (and in some weeks, have managed to best them), so Conan hasn't quite "disappeared".

February 07 2011 at 9:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Paul Little's comment
aapljack

Paul, I respectfully disagree with your take on the ratings. Leno has beaten everybody head-to-head, both overall and in 18-49, pretty much every week since Bill Clinton's first term. He even beat Dave in 18-49 on the night Howard Stern was on despite a massive lead-in disadvantage. The year-over-year stuff posted by tvbythenumbers was an admitted publicity stunt. It means no more than saying that since the Steelers scored more points in this year's Super Bowl than the Colts did in last year's, therefore the Steelers are better than the Colts. Different season, different game.

As for Conan being on par with Stewart, you'd better have a look at the latest numbers.

February 08 2011 at 7:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
Ba Ba Bauf

NBC made a very short-term decision. Yes, Leno is pulling down better overall ratings at this very moment than Conan did a year ago (although, not particularly better ratings in the "prized" category of 18-35 year-old Males), but puting Leno back at 11:35 didn't solve NBC's long-term problem with "The Tonight Show". Leno will have to retire, eventually, and that may be sooner rather than later considering his diminsihed ratings since his return last March. NBC will then have to go through a whole "succession" plan all over again, this time without the safety-net of Having Leno waiting in the wings in case something goes wrong. Within the next five years or so, NBC will probably have to deal with its "Late Night" situation all over again, and who's to say Leno won't still be reluctant to leave then too? It could be another big mess. At least when they gave the show to Conan, they went ahead with it and made the transition. NBC's fault was that they panicked and didn't give him any time to get his show into any kind of groove (7 months?), and now they are facing that same transition all over again. Like I said, very short-term thinking.

February 07 2011 at 11:18 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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