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Conan O’Brien hit the publicity mother lode Monday.
Nobody really knew what to expect on opening night of Conan O’Brien’s between-TV-gigs comedy tour, especially after news broke that morning about his new TBS show. But rather use the moment to plug said forthcoming program, he stuck to the script and delivered an enjoyable though uneven night of comedy, with only a few mentions of the host’s future employer.
When the newly bearded O’Brien took the stage to cheers at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Ore., he paced it while waiting for the enormous cheers to die down. “Conan! Conan!” they chanted, as if welcoming a rock star. And that was the vibe throughout; it was more concert than theater piece — or, more accurately, variety show. O’Brien even went through several costume changes, going as gaudy as he pleased to the crowd’s delight.
He seemed unfazed by the unfamiliar medium, settling into his self-deprecating comfort zone early and often. “I am not supposed to admit this,” he said right off the bat, “but, ladies and gentlemen, I really missed the applause. You have no idea how shallow I am.”
And applause he got, from an adoring crowd of 2,500-plus that gave O’Brien and company more laughs than they really earned during a languidly paced 110-minute show that was consistently amusing and occasionally riotous but sometimes fell flat. Even the band got a standing ovation after its rousing opening number.
The show began with a taped bit about O’Brien’s sad state while waiting for his call to return to TV. It was funny, if a little overlong, and recalled the “run to L.A.” that opened his first “Tonight Show.” To the straining strains of Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself,” he was seen with a huge belly, mowing on beer, pizza and a protein shake that included Orange Crush, Doritos and Crisco. At the end, a slimmed-down, buffed-up and mock-serious O’Brien says: “I’m ready. Let’s do this.”
The first half-hour easily was the best, with the once and future late-night host doing stand-up and prepared bits. He could have played the role of publicly wronged hero, out for some payback, but his jabs at former employer NBC were playful — nothing vicious or spiteful. O’Brien acknowledged, however, that there were some things he wouldn’t be allowed to say.
“Lawyers are listening,” he explained. As the sellout crowd chuckled, he said under his breath, “I’m not kidding.”
There were a few gags about O’Brien not being sure what restrictions were in place for the live show. But he did trot out old NBC friends the Masturbating Bear — who was re-outfitted and transformed into the Self-Pleasuring Panda — and, on the video screen, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Andy Richter mostly hung out at stage right in sidekick mode, and guests included rock band Spoon; comic and O’Brien “Tonight Show” writer Deon Cole, who did an overly generous 10 minutes of stand-up; and, in an olive-branchy nod to NBC, Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock.”
The show had a scattershot quality, like it was being made to look less scripted than it was, and the banter between O’Brien and Richter wasn’t riveting. The latter, introduced by the host as “one of the funniest people alive,” wasn’t given much to do, and when he got a few minutes of solo spotlight, his “What I’ve Learned” bit mostly tanked.
Not that the audience minded. It was a canny move to open the 32-date tour in a college town away from the arms-folded industry crowds of the megamedia centers. Several bits were aimed at local people and places, guaranteeing big cheers. And some of those — like the salute to Burrito Boy and its “Mexican-like fare at prices even the homeless can enjoy” — certainly translated to the nonlocals well enough.
Easily among the night’s funniest bits was the resurrection of his old “Walker, Texas Ranger” Lever — here cheekily renamed the Chuck Norris Rural Policeman Handle. He pulled it, and an unintentionally hilarious clip from the “classic” series was shown on the big screen. More of those would have been welcomed.
All told, though, the comedy was hit and miss, with significantly fewer laughs during the second hour. Long, oh-so-deliberate setups rarely generated the hoped-for guffaws — a deadly sin. One promising bit about “the eight stages of grieving for the loss of your talk show” earned some deserved hearty laughs. Of the “paranoia stage,” O’Brien said, “I started hearing strange voices saying, ‘Daddy, we’re hungry.’ ” But it meandered far too long, ending with a lazy name-check of the tour stop that generated the inevitable huge but unearned response.
There wasn’t much added edge in the live setting, save for a few blue words and maybe when O’Brien was “urged” by the crowd — reacting to the video screen — to kiss trombonist Richie “LaBamba” Rosenberg on the mouth. He ended up licking his face and offering a peck on the temple.
Whether this is what viewers can expect come November is uncertain, of course. Let’s hope we don’t get nearly as much of O’Brien singing, though his reworked lyrics were funny. He tweaked the words to “On the Road Again,” ending with an emphatic, “Thank you, TBS, for giving me my own show again.”
After changing into the evening’s most deliberately-far-out fashion offense and doing an unfinished piano ballad about the dad from “Diff’rent Strokes” (!), O’Brien acknowledged that his new employers might not be used to him yet. “Right now,” he said, “the people at TBS are watching, going: ‘What the hell? He’s wearing a pink leather outfit?’ ” He also joked about his next project. “You may have heard I got a new gig,” he said, to cheers. “Starting tomorrow, I’m the new manager of the Eugene Banana Republic.”
Yes, plenty of mention of TBS and NBC but not a breath about Fox. Maybe it’s just too soon to start joking about that.
He wound down the show with a sincere thank you to the audience. “It’s been an absolute pleasure and an honor to be with you tonight,” he said. “The support I got from people like you … I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
The encore of “Forty Days” featured O’Brien strolling through the crowd with guitar and without security. It was a populist move to end a night of looking forward and only occasionally back. It indeed was more than the host’s stated goal — “I want you all to leave here tonight thinking, ‘That was kinda worth it’ ” — but it certainly wasn’t a comedy show for the ages.
If there was any intended significance of playing the Beatles’ “Revolution” twice on the PA before the show started, it wasn’t apparent.
Venue: Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Eugene, Ore. (Monday, April 12)
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