As his TBS yakker bows Nov. 8, don’t expect Conan O’Brien to reinvent the talkshow format.
But 10 months after he endured the Great Latenight Debacle at NBC, O’Brien has changed — and his take on the genre has likely evolved as well.
What’s more, O’Brien is launching his own franchise this time. The host previously inherited the house that David Letterman built — and then ascended to the “Tonight Show” throne once held by King Carson. But this time out, it’s Conan’s creation.
“Now we don’t have that hanging over our heads,” O’Brien’s longtime exec producer Jeff Ross says.
Conan and company also won’t face the same kind of ratings pressure. With the bar lower in cable, TBS will be ecstatic if “Conan” generates even half the ratings that NBC deemed disappointing for the O’Brien “Tonight Show.”
O’Brien has also spent the year immersing himself online for the first time, boasting nearly 2 million followers on Twitter. And his large-scale “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” nationwide tour gave him a chance to try his hand at entertaining auds in a completely different venue.
Those extracurricular activities presented a whole new set of tools for O’Brien to play with that he can now apply to the TBS show.
“He probably used some muscles during that three-month tour that he hadn’t really used before,” Ross says.
Indeed, it’s already a slightly different O’Brien than the one who signed off in January after 17 years with NBC by rocking out with a rendition of “Free Bird.” And we’re not just talking about the beard (which could very well be finally shaved on night one).
Many critics had suggested that O’Brien lost some of his edge after taking over “Tonight,” which didn’t help that show’s ratings.
But somewhat ironically, the events of January — in which NBC attempted to shift “Tonight” to midnight to make room for Jay Leno at 11:35 — energized O’Brien and his show.
Those final “Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” episodes are now considered some of his best ever.
“The travesty in that whole episode is, these shows are the types of shows that need to evolve over a period of time,” Ross says. “The ‘Tonight Show’ that we were doing five months in was not going to be the ‘Tonight Show’ we would have been doing a year in. Because you evolve.”
In the wake of the “situation,” as Ross puts it, O’Brien managed to stay in the public eye (thanks to his tour and his ever-growing Internet presence) even as he waited on the sidelines for the noncompete portion of his NBC settlement to expire.
The tour also inspired the new “Conan” stage, which set designers John Shaffner and Joe Stewart modeled to be more theatrical and intimate. In addition, Ross and O’Brien hope to keep up the host’s move into the Internet and social networking as a part of “Conan’s” online extension. Besides his Twitter feed, O’Brien has produced a regular series of Web videos in recent weeks, culminating with two stunts: a 24-hour live “Coco Cam” set up in the “Conan” offices and the “Show Zero” webisode sponsored by Diet Coke.
“I’m trying to take everything that I’ve picked up or learned over the last 10 months and apply it to this new show,” O’Brien told Vulture last month. “Now, we’ll err, we’ll make mistakes, we’ll hit dead ends. But I don’t want to give up any ground or any of the cool things that we discovered. I’d like to fold all that into the show and see what it becomes. I don’t know what it’s going to become.”
“Conan” will still remain familiar to longtime fans of the host, and expect to see many standard features from O’Brien. NBC execs have hinted that they don’t plan to fight the host should he take along intellectual property that technically belongs to the Peacock. (An NBC exec says the network is not about to look foolish by fighting for the rights to the Masturbating Bear.)
One notable exception: NBC won’t allow Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to perform on the new show; that’s the one property originated on O’Brien’s “Late Night” and “Tonight” that the network feels might still have a future as a franchise on the network.
As for how “Conan” will perform, most rivals expect the show to open big next week, likely beating the broadcasters among adults 18-49. Around this same time last year, O’Brien’s “Tonight” was averaging around a 1.0 rating in the demo — in a dead heat with “Late Show With David Letterman.” (In recent weeks, Leno’s “Tonight Show” has started actually trailing O’Brien’s year-ago performance.)
For a TBS comparison, last year the cabler opened George Lopez’s “Lopez Tonight” with a strong 1.7 million viewers on TBS alone. (The opener was also simulcast on TNT and TruTV, adding up to 3.2 million).
“Take whatever Lopez made and double it,” says one rival network exec — hinting he thinks the show could reach at least 4 million viewers (and possibly many more) on opening night.
Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate says, “I think he will start out strong like George Lopez did a year ago. He should be able to maintain his audience as the months go by a little better, though.”
Read more about Jeff Ross’s plans for the new show in “‘Conan’ topper talks.”