Compared to the exuberant, triumphant opening video of his first Tonight Show, in which he took the reins of a franchise with such joy that he ran cross-country rather than wait a few seconds for any other mode of transportation to arrive, the opening of Conan O'Brien's self-titled show on TBS bore the scars of the lanky ginger's previous job. This time, Conan was bitter, telling his bosses to screw themselves for ruining his dream and driving off-set, only for a Godfather parody to leave him riddled with bullets and told by stern doctors that he'd never return to network television. After working a series of odd jobs, Conan finally, with the help of guardian angel Larry King, found his way to basic cable, and all seemed right with the world. Until gangsters showed up once more with Tommy guns and tore him apart once more.
Funny as it was, the opening sketch of Conan suggested a continuing resentment for NBC, one that could dominate the focus of his new show. But, apart from a few (excellent) zingers at his old employer's expense, Conan quickly moved into his new job with ease. Whether a conscious attempt to set himself apart from his nemesis, Jay Leno, or simply an expression of gratitude for the fan support that won him his new position, Conan inverted Leno's recent penchant for having the crowd flock around him in a faux-populist move by actually interacting with the crowd of his own volition. As he took his bows before a standing ovation, Conan slipped off behind the camera to hug a woman in the front row. Later, in-between monologue jokes, he casually ducked to the side and shook a guy's hand. Rather than lavish in a sense of community, as Leno does to detrimental effect -- Patton Oswalt nailed it when he said that people creepily congregated around Jay as if he excreted a healing elixir -- Conan poked fun at these moments by playing himself up as a creepy old man playing grab-ass with a captive audience.
One could chalk the strength of his monologue up to the fact that his writers had, oh, about nine months to work on it, but even the delivery was sharp. The nervousness that tinged Conan's first Tonight Show performances, the result of a man -- even a professional -- getting his deepest wish granted on national television and being accordingly stunned, was gone, replaced by the Conan that emerged at the end of his tenure at NBC, a fiery blend of his old Late Night madness with the sophistication (or at least the steely self-confidence) of a host working at 11:30.
Conan is at his best when he's making fun of himself, and beneath the jabs at his former employer were a host of gags at his own expense. Apart from a number of monologue jokes that made fun of himself, Conan brought Andy Richter to the couch, where they broke out Conan Halloween masks that, for legal reasons, were depressingly named "Ex-Talk Show Host" masks. "It smells like tears!" quipped Andy, muffled through the rubber of the hysterically creepy costume. And if that wasn't odd enough, the host then turned to look at the background image painted behind the desk, complete with a moon Conan could move via remote control, leading to a low-fi wobble that made Andy shout "Any Mayans watching this are freaking out!" (In case it wasn't obvious, Richter was as on-his game as O'Brien.)
Compared to the moving but shaky first episode of the Tonight Show, Conan hit the ground running, displaying the best of its host. In some ways, frankly, it displayed better than Conan's previous best. As an interviewer, Conan has always been good at setting up funny and interesting guests with whom he has a prior relationship, but he has been desperately stilted with stars just there to plug material. With a taped message from Ricky Gervais, an interview with Seth Rogen and a musical performance by (and with) Jack White, Conan certainly surrounded himself with buddies, but I found myself most drawn to his chat with Glee star Lea Michele. Where I expected him to stick to the cards and ask simple questions, he suddenly got involved with the guest, engaging in as much of a chatty atmosphere as he did with Rogen -- hell, he might actually have been more on-point with Rogen with his questions concerning Green Hornet. Michele, while not a bore or a ditz, didn't bring a whole lot to the conversation at first, and I feared a dull interview, but Conan's more natural side brought out the best in her, and by the end of their five or six-minute chat, I was a fan of her.
Even the set reflected a honing of Conan's skills. Though he eventually made great use of the expansiveness of NBC's Tonight Show set, his previous digs were simply too massive, creating too wide a gulf between host and audience and leaving the vast majority of the room unused. Only when Conan started running races, practicing Hollywood stunts or bringing elephants in the place did he finally make it feel human. TBS gave him a set that resembled his large but still intimate Late Night studio, bigger than the cramped, '80s-Letterman style room he got at the start of his run but manageable. He still has plenty of room to do something big, and I hope he brings some of the more daring (if expensive) ideas from his Tonight Show to TBS. But the smaller set works to his benefit and allows him to seem more human instead of the occasional detachment that came with Conan's previous show, even when it took off in terms of quality. (Now they just need need to condense that Lopez Tonight set; does he tape in a goddamn abandoned warehouse or something? You can hear the mic echo, for God's sake.)
If there was anything I wanted to see done differently, it was the ingenious bit of Conan's "first guest," introduced to much fanfare, only for it to be the curator of a nutcracker museum who walked from stage right to stage left, pausing just long enough to hand Conan a notably stereotypical leprechaun nutcracker before exiting the building. It was pure Conan, but I couldn't help but wish he'd asked her some questions. Some of Carson's (and Letterman's) best bits came from interviews with the unconventional "normal" people in society, not celebrities. Regular people weren't so much plugging something as discussing a passion, and in all their weirdness they were endearing -- who can forget Johnny inviting a woman on who collected potato chips, only to play one of his most riotous jokes on her?
I also view the unchanged talk show format with a slight amount of hesitation. Coming off his live tour, which mixed performance art, monologue, taped segment and various forms of off-the-wall, borderline avant-garde comedy into something that befitted his absurdity. Yet the traditional talk show format is how he worked for 20 years, and just because he worked within a formula didn't mean he was stilted. Sure, his monologues work mainly because of his wacky delivery and recovery, but the two staples of talk shows -- monologues and interviews -- have been weak spots for him. Even so, he made his show(s) work, and work brilliantly. As he showed last night, he still had the touch.
We'll see what happens when the initial luster wears off, the guests aren't stacked to be friends of Conan and the writers have to come up with material daily instead of on their paid leave, yet something was different in Conan last night. While far from arrogant, he did not let the humbling power of his recent career path subdue him. He was not a man meekly inheriting a dynasty but a confident leader establishing his own, a Yu the Great for basic cable. It's easy (and sensible) to take Conan at face value when he says he chose the title because "it makes me harder to replace," but his decision also acknowledges, perhaps painfully, that talk shows no longer have a legacy beyond their host. No one watches The Late Show or The Late Late Show, they watch "Letterman" or "Craig." O'Brien admirably brought a reverence for the Tonight Show's history to his all-too-brief run, but Leno had spent nearly 20 years pretending as if no one else had ever hosted the thing. Hell, he had to: the king of late night was, is and forever shall be Johnny Carson, and Leno forced him out with weaselly business practices. As much as people, even of my generation, continue to love Johnny, it was Jay's show long enough that he became synonymous with it, and also with its slide into tame mediocrity. Now, Conan can build something from the ground up, and in a forum where the financial stakes are lower and the potential for creative freedom is higher. Some continue to mock the transition as a downgrade, and it is -- he lost the Tonight Show; everything else is a step down -- but moving to basic cable in an era when nearly everyone has regular cable and the distinction no longer matter was a masterstroke that sidestepped the hairy issues of working for FOX. I can't wait to see how Conan works with the change.
I hope that a more madcap style seeps into the show's actual format and not just in Conan's behavior, but either way, Conan's return exceeded my expectations. Once they get settled in, I imagine we'll be treated to a new set of bizarre characters, the always enjoyable moments when Conan leaves the studio and just interacts with people as kooky as him, and the legacy of a great comic will be restored. Glad you're back Conan; Neil Young sang for Conan's last Tonight Show, "Long may you run."