Tonight, a long, national nightmare begins its final chapter. Conan O'Brien starts his new late-night show on TBS. Fans can be forgiven for feeling like the 11 p.m. debut of Conan caps the longest real-life soap opera in history — born when NBC gave O'Brien its venerated Tonight Show franchise, then forced him to follow former host Jay Leno, who had moved to 10 p.m., then tried to move Tonight back to midnight when ratings slumped for both, then gave him $45 million to leave. Most experts predict he'll be successful, at least initially, focusing on a rabid, youthful cyber-savvy fan base that has flocked to his website and live shows. (It helps that old faves such as sidekick Andy Richter and substitute bandleader Jimmy Vivino are back.) But I'm worried the man who once was considered the future of NBC's late night may still be biting off a bit more than he can handle.
Top 5 reasons Conan may go bust
1. People are tired of talking late night, already. Even at the height of NBC's late-night woes, the drawn-out humiliation of O'Brien and slow comeback of middlebrow Leno began to grate on TV fans. Already, O'Brien's return has sparked recap stories in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and TV Guide. Will viewers react by deciding they've heard enough?
2. He's taking on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert at their height. Conan debuts during the Daily Show and Colbert Report time slots when both rival shows have never been hotter. Fresh off the Rally to Restore Sanity and an interview with the president, Stewart's show drew more viewers age 18 to 49 in October than any other late-night talk show, including Leno and David Letterman. (One caveat; Stewart's cable ratings don't include reruns, while the network's figures do.) Can O'Brien stand against that trend?
3. His first lineup of celebrity guests don't bring much celebrity. Other than Oscar-winner Tom Hanks and Mad Men star Jon Hamm, O'Brien's first week of guests include relatively underwhelming names: musician Jack White, actor Seth Rogen, and the band Fistful of Mercy. Yeah, it's a lineup calibrated for his young, Facebook-savvy fans (his first guest was chosen by online vote, even). But it also recalls a major criticism of O'Brien's NBC debut: not enough big stars.
4. The preview promos and online snippets aren't that funny. Slow-motion clips of O'Brien washing his desk slathered in soap. A bit in the TBS blimp shouting insults at an old girlfriend. A four-minute preview "Show Zero" held in the office's conference room and posted online. (The joke: everything on the Internet is fast-paced.) All these bits recall another O'Brien criticism: He's often amusing, but not hilarious.
5. Jimmy Fallon is showing him how it's done. Just as O'Brien flowered after two years of mediocrity, Fallon seems to have found his groove as the new post-Leno guy, rocking the Emmy Awards as host and providing viral moments that reach fans outside his show (most recently, his thrilling history of hip-hop jam with Justin Timberlake and the Roots). Fallon's success highlights another problem O'Brien had, until he was leaving the Tonight Show: Not enough of his bits reached fans who weren't already watching.