‘Conan’ comes into his own

Posted by · 9:25 pm · November 8th, 2010

Conan O’Brien’s foray into basic cable (airing on TBS) settled on an applicable show title two months ago. Because “Conan” is just that, the host, personality — and perhaps for the first time ever — person (rather than caricature) unfiltered and freely spirited.

On tonight’s premiere episode — following a humorous pre-taped open featuring an homage to “The Godfather” — O’Brien paced in front of a camera panning to catch up with his energy as he delivered an opening monologue full of crisp, precise jokes and uncharacteristically authentic energy. But there was an unmistakable ease.

O’Brien has always been associated with unusual, sometimes esoteric humor. But once self-awareness became a part of the act early on, it quickly cannibalized his material. But while he carried David Letterman’s “Late Night” baton well, the audience for his next gig — an ill-fated nine-month stint as host of “The Tonight Show” — clearly did not take to his brand quick enough for NBC suits.

One hopes that the somewhat more contained, and therefore more refined, atmosphere of tonight’s show wasn’t a hasty reactionary measure, but I saw something else. I caught a whiff of maturity. But it wasn’t a stuffy maturity by any means. O’Brien was free in his space on a Warner Bros. sound stage, moving around it, reaching out to the audience and probably giving the show’s director a bit of a workout cutting to his action.

I was actually reminded of the same atmosphere that drove David Letterman to his best work when he left NBC for CBS in 1993. At the risk of placing too much on one installment, O’Brien seems to have grown into the next stage of his career with a confidence he frankly seemed to lack on “The Tonight Show” but was always part of the joke on “Late Night.” Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band even seemed perfectly complete without Max Weinberg. They, too, have grown into this next stage.

But none of that’s going to stop O’Brien from opening the show with a joke insulting the TBS viewership, something he might not have gotten away with so easily at NBC.

The only criticism would be the host’s participation in a musical number with his friend and first musical gust on “Conan,” Jack White. (Other guests included actors Seth Rogen and Lea Michele.)  After seeing O’Brien belt out the verses of “Free Bird” with Will Ferrell on his recent farewell, it could be seen as a false note in the establishment of a next-level Conan…if it’s a one-off, that is. If it’s indicative of a new direction with a more involved host leaping beyond the duties of couched questioner and occasional (expected) material-specific participation, then it could be a next-level variety show experience, too.

Nevertheless, it’s nice to see Andy Richter on the couch, a throwback to the early days of “Late Night” and a comfortable reminder of O’Brien’s progression. We’ll see where it all goes from here.

[Photo: TBS]

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12 responses so far

  • 1 11-08-2010 at 9:31 pm

    James D. said...

    I couldn’t stop laughing over the homage to Sonny Corleone.

    Overall, though, it seems like it will be the last time I choose it over Jon Stewart when both are showing new episodes. That girl after Rogen was terribly boring, as was Rogen himself. He is not too funny ever since he lost weight.

    I am a big fan of Jack White’s work, but that was not too good. I would have rather heard White play his best work.

  • 2 11-08-2010 at 10:02 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I actually liked Rogen, though maybe a different guest would have been in order to start the new show.

  • 3 11-08-2010 at 10:28 pm

    James said...

    I missed the Rogen part, but overall not bad. Not great. Lea Michele, nice enough girl was a tad boring. Opening first 10 minutes were generally solid. Seemed fitting to have Jack White on. I do feel that he could have had better guests, but as I said before I missed Rogen’s segment, and I usually like him.

  • 4 11-08-2010 at 10:37 pm

    Fitz said...

    I’m looking forward to Hamm’s guest spot as well as Jack Nicholson. Nice to see Conan back on tv!

  • 5 11-09-2010 at 12:26 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    No Nicholson.

  • 6 11-09-2010 at 1:43 am

    Ide Cyan said...

    Well, he’s airing on a network channel in Canada (CTV), but it’s at 1:07 AM, after both Stewart and Colbert’s shows.

  • 7 11-09-2010 at 6:49 am

    daveylow said...

    Why have Lea Michele on who’s gift is her singing and not have her sing? I thought it was an OK debut which I’m sure will get better. I don’t watch Jon Stewart every night so I will tune in to Conan when he has a guest I want to see.

    I do notice that he seems to spend very little time with each guest though. Sometimes on Letterman, Dave will talk to a particularly interesting guest longer. Conan seems to rush them through.

  • 8 11-09-2010 at 6:53 am

    dee8 said...

    ace show, great to see him back

  • 9 11-09-2010 at 9:08 am

    Fitz said...

    No Nicholson? That is a shame.

  • 10 11-09-2010 at 12:35 pm

    Andrew M said...

    Loved it. After he gets used to his surroundings and he knows more completely where his show is going going comedy wise, it should be great.

  • 11 11-09-2010 at 2:42 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    mid to low level celebs for the first show is fine because no one was going to miss the show anyway. I think its a good thing he has Tom tonight, to keep the audience reeled in and possibly bring in some old Forrest Gump loving folks.

  • 12 11-09-2010 at 4:48 pm

    j said...

    Amazing 18-49 ratings for the first episode, likely the top cable show not called Monday Night Football this week.