I know, I know. Last time I wrote we’d check back in on the thrashing undead corpse of Survivor, and I promise we will next week. (That reminds me, I’ll also be doing a write-up on AMC’s mega-awesome The Walking Dead fairly soon.) But on Monday morning, Jana, the publisher of our website JustReminding.com, sent this e-mail:
” Gary can you review Conan’s new show since it will be super doper watched”
Now I’ve lived in Northern California for some seventeen years, and I confess to knowing one or two folks whose personal intake might qualify them as “super dopers.” Hell, they may even have engraved commemorative bongs. But the point is, when a HOT Czech-Canadian blonde sends you one of her dyslexic e-mails, you have to get past the hilarious malaprops and admit the return of Conan O’Brien to late night is one of the fall season’s more noteworthy events.
Like many, I was a fan of Conan’s even before I knew who he was. The Harvard grad (with a degree in history) had gone from a short writing stint at Saturday Night Live to penning four epsiodes of The Simpsons including two stone classics, “Marge vs. the Monorail” and “Homer Goes to College.” Remember this exchange, as the monorail, with Homer as the conductor, goes out of control?
Marge: There’s a man here who says he can help you.
Homer: Is it Batman?
Marge: He’s a scientist.
Homer: Batman’s a scientist.
Marge: It’s not Batman!
That was all Conan, bringing the funny to TV even before he had a desk, Andy Richter, or the Max Weinberg Seven. On DVD commentary tracks, Simpsons show runners recall Conan cracking up the writing staff with long improvised runs on any topic at hand. But more extraordinary, they remember him carrying on like this even when he was by himself. The man is a comedy shark; he has to be funny or he’ll perish. Even had Johnny Carson’s retirement in the early 90’s not led to a redrawing of the late night map, I truly believe Conan would’ve eventually pushed his way onto the television landscape by pure drive and invention. It’s hard to believe now, but when Late Night with Conan O’Brien debuted in ’93, the show was disparaged as amateurish and that this young upstart had no business hosting a show alongside the big boys (Jay Leno, David Letterman). Yet what might have initially seemed juvenile or in-jokey was really Conan and crew experimenting with the talk show form, reengineering it not only for a younger host but for a younger audience as well. In short, Conan was doing exactly what Letterman had done the decade before. And once audiences and critics caught up, they never looked back. Conan’s love of absurdist humor mixed with his own lightning wit made for a perfect post-midnight cocktail. There was a period in the mid-90’s when I watched him almost every night. This was the golden era of Staring Contests, In the Year 2000, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, The More You Know (“Sometimes condoms break; deal with it, missy!”), Conan Babies, Andy’s Sister, and my favorite, Pimpbot 5000 (“He combines the technology of a futuristic android with the street-wise attitude of a 1970’s pimp”).
Full confession: Aside from his first show and final week, I never watched Conan’s version of The Tonight Show. For one thing, I have a job so I can’t stay up that late on weeknights anymore. (Of course, conditions at my company may change that whole employment situation again pretty soon so, uh…yay?) But also, it looked like Conan was softening his act for the more mainstream Tonight Show audience who were just coming off three decades of Carson and another 17 years of Leno. I was happy he had the big gig at last, and that Andy Richter, that most brilliant of sidekicks as well as a terrific comedy actor in his own right, was back after taking nine years off for his own projects. But I didn’t care to stay up late just to watch a watered down version of a once-great show. If Conan was happy, I was happy, and that was that. Only, as we all know, that wasn’t that. With Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. borefest as a weak lead-in, Conan’s Tonight Show bled ratings like a hemophiliac stuck pig. The honchos who run NBC (the same rocket scientists who just gave a full season order for the blindingly awful Outsourced) decided to put Leno back on at 11 p.m. and move Conan to 12:05. Conan, of course, felt screwed by both the network and Leno who initially gave his blessing to the new host, and so he stuck to principal and walked. That last week of shows, with its running gag of spending as much of NBC’s money as possible, was by turns hysterical, sad, inspiring and dare I say moving, especially when Conan made a heartfelt plea to his audience not to give into cynicism. Then came the beard, the 60 Minutes Interview, and the live tour which some of my friends who have this thing called “disposable income” were able to catch, and report was full-on glorious. Finally, after much speculation that Conan would jump to Fox, it was announced that he would instead go to TBS, a station whose moto is “Very Funny” and whose other programming (Lopez Tonight, Are We There Yet?, the too aptly titled Tyler Perry’s House of Pain) is anything but. I gotta admit I was a little worried. Would Conando have to file down his edges yet again?
With some relief, it looks like the answer is a flat “no.” His debut show on Monday was probably the funniest hour of television I’ve watched all fall. The opening filmed bit featured our host refusing NBC’s order to move his show, full of hubris as he sneers, “What can they do?” As his car slows to NBC’s gatepost, goons with tommy guns riddle him with bullets Sonny Corleone-style. Told he’ll survive but never host a talk show again, he screams “Noooo!” to the heavens and has to find employment. First he interviews with Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price, where Jon Hamm as “Don Draper” refuses him on the grounds, “It’s 1965 and you’re only two-years-old.” Then after humiliating tries working fast food and children’s birthday parties, TBS makes him an offer. Sliding it across the table, the bottom portion of the offer unfolds to read, “Less. (unfolds top part) Much.” Conan takes it…only to be machine gunned by goons once more.
Then came the monologue, Conan trying to fit everything that’s happened over the last nine months into one intentionally baffling and overstuffed joke, followed by showing off the new set, complete with a moon electronically controlled by the host. As the moon clumsily grew, shrank and vibrated, Andy earned his paycheck: “Mayans are freaking out.” The Masterbating Bear got a cameo, and Ricky Gervais did a fairly funny taped bit where he wished Conan well at TBS. Then as long as he was there, also taped several spots coursing Conan’s eventual failure until he gets fired from Food Network and has to be on satellite radio. First guest was a freakishly thin Seth Rogan, sounding more than ever like a stoned Cookie Monster. He went on about proposing to his topless girlfriend, then moved onto the travails of getting a medicinal marijuana permit, and flogged that terrible-looking Green Hornet movie coming out in January. Next was Lea Michele from Glee. As you know, I’m not much of a fan of Glee, but I am a fan of Lea Michele’s perfect legs so call it a wash. While neither guest was that special on their own, Conan coaxed solid and continuous laughs with his trademark flashpaper asides and self-deprecation. “As I move towards her, she moves away!” Finally Conan strapped on the axe to join Jack White in a smokin’ rendition of the Eddie Cochran classic “Twenty Flight Rock.” After a short visit with the soft-spoken White, the credits were rolling and all viewers with a high school diploma were changing the channel before that Lopez thing came on.
Was it his best show? No, but the laughs were plenty, the Conan-Andy dynamic as well-oiled as ever, and that’s all that really matters. Coco’s back where he belongs. And y’know what? When you think about it, Batman is kind of a scientist.