The biggest problem with Conan O'Brien's new TBS show: It feels too much like his old shows
One pressing question about Conan O'Brien's new TBS show was answered the moment the lanky comic ambled onto his show's art deco-styled set Monday for the debut episode of Conan.
Yes, he's still wearing the shaggy beard he grew after getting squeezed out of NBC's Tonight Show earlier this year.
And yeah, he's still got lots of agita about how the Peacock Network treated him.
"It’s not easy doing a late-night show on a channel without a lot of money and that viewers have trouble finding," the carrot-topped comic cracked during his opening monologue, distributed to the press before the episode aired to ensure clarity. "So that’s why I left NBC."
Oddly, the beard, a new bandleader and a few snide references to NBC are just about the only things that distinguished the style and feel of this new show from the very first series that established O'Brien's career as a late night host, NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien. It's as if O'Brien reacted to the horrible trauma of losing the Tonight Show by recreating the vibe where he found his greatest success (complete with a bit featuring his old Masturbating Bear character, basically daring NBC to file an intellectual property suit).
Kicking off the night with a long, pre-taped skit featuring O'Brien refusing to move the Tonight Show to midnight -- as NBC executives actually suggested in real life -- then showing him getting gunned down Godfather-style, applying for a job with a Mad Men-styled Jon Hamm, trying to work in fast food and eventually having Larry King suggest a home in basic cable, Conan kicked off with the kind of quirky laughs that were always his trademark on Late Night. Check it out by clicking here.
Didn't hurt that sidekick Andy Richter was still there to serve as his quick-witted comedy wingman (when trying on an O'Brien-styled Halloween mask labeled simply "ex talk show host," Richter noted "It's authentic -- inside it smells like tears.") And most of O'Brien's old band was on hand -- minus drummer/founder Max Weinberg, who cited recent heart surgery for quitting the gig -- rechristened as the Basic Cable Band.
No wonder the rhythms of this new Conan felt a lot like the old one, proving there may only be so many ways to host a late night talk show. Particularly, the schmoozing with guests Seth Rogen and Glee star Lea Michele felt a bit forced, just like the old days. (as the program's first real guest, Green Hornet star Rogen used a joke to say what was on everyone else's mind when he walked out, noting, "I'm so glad everyone more famous was busy right now.") And a bit where the first guest was chosen online -- unveiled as the founder of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum -- fell flat when the woman walked across the stage and out the studio door, waving to the crowd.
It seemed as if O'Brien had just taken a really long break and started up his show again without much change -- good for presenting a consistent program but not so great if you're trying to sell fans and the world on a re-energized, unfettered comic breaking free of NBC's network TV shackles.
When a pre-taped guest shot by Ricky Gervais delivers your biggest laughs -- after filming a welcome back message, he went on to record messages welcoming O'Brien to the Food Network and satellite radio "just in case" -- perhaps you need to amp up the energy a bit.
Once upon a time, O'Brien felt like the bright future of late night talk; an energetically goofy alternative to showbiz pros David Letterman and Jay Leno. But this first episode of Conan felt less like the future than faded snapshot of the past -- a fun, if familiar walk on well-worn ground that fans have trod many times before.
And it will take more than that to build a new late night dynasty in basic cable.