Opening with a four-minute taped piece spoofing (among other things) “The Godfather,” Conan O’Brien’s new TBS latenight show — on the basic-cable network that made him an offer he couldn’t refuse — not surprisingly looks a whole lot like his earlier programs. And that’s fine. O’Brien’s problem was never about talent but reach, with the host possessing a later-night sensibility that didn’t sustain the broader appeal of his blander predecessor and successor. In this new venue, O’Brien can happily whack away at material for a young-male demo to his heart’s content. Cue the Masturbating Bear.
Inevitably, the host had to address his departure from NBC and “The Tonight Show,” which not only played out publicly but transformed him into a cause célèbre for many fans. He dutifully did so in the taped sequence as well as a mostly self-deprecating monologue that took an obligatory jab at his former network (“It’s not easy doing a latenight show on a channel without a lot of money and that viewers have trouble finding. So that’s why I left NBC”).
Funny stuff, but given that guests will surely feel compelled to weigh in sympathetically on past events, O’Brien would be well-advised to keep the canned “I got canned” bits to a minimum beyond week one, if only to avoid looking like an object of self-pity.
TBS also received a few pokes in the ribs, with O’Brien saying he “dreamed of being a talkshow host on basic cable ever since I was 46,” and that TBS was cable for people too cheap to buy HBO.
Once he got past the opening, very little in the premiere could be called inspired. The set didn’t break any ground cosmetically, and director Allan Kartun’s fondness for shooting O’Brien from behind during the monologue seemed perplexing, if not distracting.
Guest Seth Rogen did his part by saying “shit” — which was bleeped — opening the door for O’Brien to express gratitude for cable’s laxer standards. The segment with “Glee’s” Lea Michele, meanwhile, proved disappointingly flat, as O’Brien broached her controversial GQ photo shoot but didn’t get much mileage out of it.
The smart money says O’Brien will flourish in this new home, on a network (witness the waves of promotion) that’s thrilled to have him. It’s only too bad O’Brien appears to suffer from the same “The Tonight Show” preoccupation — a common ailment among comics — that has dogged his closest spiritual kin, David Letterman, to this day.
Ultimately, O’Brien faces one existential challenge with this new endeavor — doing well enough to ensure he’s remembered as something other than the shortest-tenured “Tonight Show” host in history.
As the guy who kicked off his previous gig by running across America, O’Brien can no doubt testify that completing such a journey is a marathon, not a sprint.