Conan O'Brien's Late Night Return: What to Expect

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Tonight, the world gets put back to right.

Conan will debut on TBS at 11 p.m., thus returning the once and future would-be king of late night back to, well, late night. Conan O’Brien’s strange trip -- so well documented it needs no updating here -- restarts in one of those places we never guessed. Basic cable.

Obviously not NBC, where O’Brien once had an ill-advised boyhood dream to be host of The Tonight Show. Not Fox, where the rumors and odds collided to make him an almost sure-thing there, until they didn’t.

Instead, it’s TBS. And credit the channel of “Very Funny” for going out to get someone who is actually funny. In the parlor game that is “What Does This All Mean?” TBS has perhaps the biggest stake. It wants to continue its evolution as a comedy destination. It wants young people to come over and join Team Coco, then sleep late, blow off some classes and watch a bunch of sitcom reruns the next day while firing up the bong. (OK, that last part isn’t actually a stated goal of the network, but still, it’s pretty likely. How else can anyone get through the 2 to 3:30 p.m. block of According to Jim, Everybody Loves Raymond and yet another According to Jim?)

Based on the principle of least astonishment, NBC is once again The Biggest Loser in all of this. Why? Because it’s NBC. From the David Letterman vs. Jay Leno fiasco to the O’Brien vs. Leno fiasco, the Peacock has proven stubbornly unwilling to be managed with any sense of planning or vision. After the recent news that Leno has fallen behind Letterman and The Daily Show (and probably a bunch of stuff on Telemundo), all NBC is hoping is that Leno has some gas left in the tank and further erosion is not imminent.

And then there’s this issue of what it means for late night as a whole and Conan in particular. Here’s a short story about that: It doesn’t really matter. 

Seriously, has there been less need to parse the ratings in late night? The last time ratings were important, this whole Conan and Jay thing was the big story. That’s a whole beard ago -- ancient times in TV Land. Sure, if declining issues lead advancing issues 2-to-1 or some such thing, NBC may panic and replace Leno with Randy Quaid. But short of that, all chairs and desks from 11 p.m. onward are safe. The risk is gone.

No matter what rating/share Conan gets, he’s not going anywhere. How this affects Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s momentum means nothing. They are going nowhere. Letterman is going nowhere. Jimmy Kimmel is going nowhere. Craig Ferguson is going nowhere. Jimmy Fallon is going nowhere.

Did that cover everyone? This is the safest time in late night probably ever. And forget the burgeoning rumors that Fallon could somehow take over for Leno. Sure he could. When Leno’s contract is up. Until then, keep dreaming.

Which brings us back to Conan and this charming concern about how he’ll do tonight. Listen, the man has been to hell and back over the stupid and outdated notion of a desk and a chair and the relevance they have on a certain network at a certain time. Conan will do just fine -- Johnny Carson is dead and so is the importance of The Tonight Show and, for that matter, late night. You did read the paragraph counting all the current hosts, right? Different era, people.

Besides, if you’ve only been paying half-attention, you realize that Conan got his mojo back in the final couple of weeks on NBC when he announced he wasn’t going along with their “plan” to restructure late night. The goofy and loveable redhead was reborn in front of a nation, creatively reinvigorated and then relocated. Team Coco had lift-off. Instant Karma got Leno. Conan stole money from NBC because his dream was deferred. And then he went on tour. And then he married TBS. Since then, he’s dominated magazines, Twitter feeds and the Internet hype-off (from viral videos to Show Zero to TV ads).

And you wonder how he’s going to do tonight? He’ll be funny and irreverent. He will have fun with Andy Richter. The guests, sketches, monologues, taped pieces, etc. -- they will get fine-tuned as the show goes on, with predictable and expected peaks and valleys. But again, it doesn’t matter all that much. What are they going to do – fire him again? Even if tonight’s show is the best comeback since Lazarus, it won’t be a game changer. That already happened when O’Brien let go of his NBC dreams.

(Here are seven things you didn't know about the new show and THR's late-night poll, which concluded that O'Brien's viewers are largely atheists.)

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