Tim Goodman Review: Conan Had 'Nervous Energy' on Late-Night Return
First shows are like first drafts – it's trial and error and grasping for inspiration. Just moving forward in some meaningful, non-embarrassing way is the main goal.
Conan O'Brien, who knows a thing or three about first shows, managed to make his hour-long premiere on TBS go by swiftly, avoiding train wrecks and night sweats to host another day.
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That day would be today. And then he'll do it again tomorrow and the day after. Yes, Coco the unkillable late night clown is back behind a desk, a talk show host once again. Everyone can breath a little easier. The hype machine can ramp down a notch. And we can all shift over to more important things. Like wondering out loud if Jay Leno goes to sleep, looking for Jimmy Fallon over his shoulder.
No, as we noted yesterday, Conan shifting to TBS has no great risk. They're not going to fire him, no matter how much he mocks the notion of being on a basic cable channel. His triumphant return does not displace anyone else, nor does it ratchet up the stakes much. He is just another gainfully employed Californian.
And judging from Monday night's first show, we can assume he'll stay that way. Despite some jitters, Conan looked comfortable in his new domain. He had nervous energy to spare, but then again he does most nights. He presided over a show that re-introduced cohort Andy Richter (who is both at the lectern and, thankfully, back on the couch); kicked off what could be a long run by Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band, and credibly guided viewers through an hour of jokes and discussions with Seth Rogen, Lea Michele and musician Jack White.
This isn't Conan's first time at the dance, you know.
Oh, right – you do know. Perhaps no TV personality has gained so much by being squeezed out by a comic and a corporation. Whether it was sympathy for the underdog or, more likely, true love for an honestly funny, self-deprecating and deeply appreciative talk show host, Conan has turned a career embarrassment into a career revival. He is beloved.
And the first-night crowd's pent-up excitement for his return manifested itself in an extended standing ovation. “That lasted longer than my last job,” Conan joked early.
“Welcome to my second annual first show,” he said, as the crowd ate it up. He made a point of going to the much-closer crowd in his new, massive studio and hugging them or shaking their hands or pretending to stalk them. “I know what you guys are thinking. Hey, it's the guy from Twitter.” [pullquote]
With that familiarity (and compassion, crowd approval and measured expectations), Conan looked to be releasing months of tension. Yes, some of that was accomplished by jumping up and down frantically or jamming with White in the final, raucous moments, but it all came rushing out sans harm or awkwardness. And while it's pointless to actually critique the first installment of a work in progress, it's probably safe to say that the show will succeed and the looser, wackier leader of Team Coco will be allowed to fine tune and grow the show at his leisure.
“People asked me why I called the show Conan. I did it so I'd be harder to replace.” And then: “I've dreamed of being a basic cable talk show host ever since I was 46.”
The night started out with an extended video gag, a “previously on” story set-up. First, he's gunned down by NBC. Without a job, he goes looking for his calling, but it turned down when he applies to Jon Hamm/Don Draper. It won't work, Draper tells him. He's got no experience. Plus: “It's 1965 and you're two years old.”
Failing at other jobs – he's a clueless worker at a Burger King and a buzz-kill monologue-spewing clown – a depressed Conan looks to be pulling a Jimmy Stewart in “It's A Wonderful Life.” But before he can jump into the L.A. river, he gets two words of sage advice from his guardian angel – Larry King, complete with wings. “Basic cable” King says. And so Conan accepts the job and a “much lower” bid from TBS to continue working as a talk show host. All is well. Even the Masturbating Bear returns, via video joke. As did friend and funny man Ricky Gervais.
Both Rogen and Michele were passable as first-night stars – which seemed a low-key way to kick things off. Being friends with the musician White also played a role in keeping Conan's emotions in check.
Conan seemed genuinely excited to be back at work and he detailed his journey of ups and downs, culminating in what he said was “the lowest low” – the discovery of a Halloween mask clearly modeled after him and titled, “Ex Talk Show Host.”
“What the hell?” Conan said. “Why don't you just put a cigarette out in my eye?” Richter tried on one of the masks and got off the best line of the night: “Inside it smells like tears.”
Yeah, but the tears are what led to this third chance to be charming.