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With a couple of weeks in his new chair at TBS, Conan O’Brien looks to be coming out of that strange and exciting and possibly surreal state he must have been in after going from his dream job to a living nightmare.
The first week was heavy on the look-back-in-anger reflection of getting dumped by NBC. Once that waned, O’Brien ratcheted up the TBS basic-cable jokes into the second week while still basking in his I’m-happy-to-have-this-job giddiness. Even with a predictable slide in the ratings, TBS has to be quite happy with its prized catch.
But there certainly are some kinks to work out. Being wired like a marionette on espresso shots always has been an O’Brien quirk, but even into his second week he seemed excessively jumpy, resorting a bit too often to his habit of goofily acting out a joke that might have missed the mark. A little of that manic-charades act goes a long way, so here’s hoping he begins to get comfortable soon.
The actual jokes in the monologue have been working just fine, and where O’Brien truly excels — the taped bits — have been solid. In fact, there should be a mandate: Get outside and shoot something. And use Andy Richter in them as well (like when he appeared in the faux commercial for Conan aimed at the black audience).
Although it’s still too early to accurately (or fairly) review Conan, a few things from the first two weeks need to be addressed. Some of the celebrity interviews seemed too short or were cut into at odd times by commercial breaks. When a guest is too aloof or possibly uncomfortable (Seth Rogen, Jack McBrayer, Jack White), O’Brien flounders a bit. Unlike David Letterman or the late Johnny Carson (or even Craig Ferguson), O’Brien isn’t yet adept at working recalcitrant guests into good material. Nothing showed this more clearly than O’Brien trying to fumble his way through an interview with Harrison Ford, who looked stoned or medicated or perhaps concussed. It was painful for both host and audience, and you have to wonder what that bit going viral on the Internet would have done for ratings. It wasn’t quite Joaquin Phoenix or Farrah Fawcett territory, but it was odd indeed.
O’Brien does far better when his guests are open and giving. Not only did the up-for-anything Tom Hanks do O’Brien a favor by showing up on the second episode (when he didn’t have a movie until July), he also allowed himself (and his suit) to be drenched with water as the two remarked on the fake whales in the cool background of the Conan set. Jon Hamm was smooth and quick-witted, Michael Cera was surprisingly funny for his appearance, and Rosario Dawson and Julie Bowen were all leggy flirtations and funny stories.
It might be nitpicking, but O’Brien also needs to find a better way to riff with (and not cut off) Richter during the monologue (when Richter is standing), and the producers need to do a better job of getting those quick-cut reaction shots to work. On the couch, Richter is at his best.
Moving forward and out of this honeymoon period, the stakes will be higher for O’Brien — as they are for all late-night hosts. And that’s just it: There are so many choices that success goes beyond A-list bookings and becomes, essentially, a race to establish an identity. The vibe of the show (and the host) is what draws in fans. O’Brien needs to have more bits go viral (thus more taped segments), and he needs to cut into Jimmy Fallon‘s lock on the best musical guests in late-night. There are so few series tie-ins (guests, bits) that he can pull from TBS — or TNT — that he needs to re-establish the patterns he had at Late Night (and not Tonight) to succeed.
There’s also this nagging worry that all the I’m With Coco love had a lot to do with people’s sense of outrage at NBC (and Leno), plus the hollow feeling of losing someone as likable as O’Brien. The goal, perhaps, was to rally for his return, to celebrate that return and then to feel comfortable that he’s again an option. But that doesn’t always mean he’ll be the first choice — thus the ratings slide. Now that he’s back and unlikely to go anytime soon, there’s less urgency to watch.
And even more urgency to stand out.
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