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.