Last night saw the long awaited return of ousted late-night talk show host, Conan O’Brien, as he premiered the new iteration of his famed NBC show on TBS, aptly named, Conan. After remaining mostly silent during his lengthy hiatus (minus a live show across the country and numerous internet productions), fans of “Team Coco” were finally able to see how their red-haired leader would fare on basic cable.
The premiere of Conan also gave fans a representation of the viability of a network host using cable as a broadcast medium. In many ways, the shear notion of Conan O’Brien leaving his network television roots for the airwaves of cable could be seen as a huge step back in the industry and, perhaps, a failure.
No matter how many backers of “Team Coco” there are in the world, no matter how many people tuned into to the premiere, one thing remains the same – TBS is a cable network. In the best situation, Conan will receive an average of two million viewers for each show broadcast, which is just portion of the audience that he had on NBC – no matter how well he was (or wasn’t) performing. At worst, Conan will be relegated to similar (or slightly better) ratings than The George Lopez Show received in the same timeslot, which was a little less than a million viewers per episode.
Although, for a veteran talk show host like Conan O’Brien, ratings are not ultimately what he’s looking for. While ratings are undoubtedly important, the television landscape will certainly support Conan - just not to the ratings heights that he achieved on network television. Instead, Conan O’Brien’s move to cable was prompted more by the necessity to not only have the freedom to produce a show that he wants, but to produce it for a network that would support such an endeavor and not inundate him with show notes and bit suggestions, as NBC did when Conan hosted The Tonight Show.
As the first episode of Conan began, viewers were presented with a taped bit which humorously represented the faux demise of Conan O’Brien on NBC, and the steps he took to finally find a home on TBS. While perhaps a tad long, the bit was important, as it gave Conan the opportunity to humorously present what had previously happened to him. Additionally, it also to served to set the tone of the series and the notion that nothing was off limits, including the worst professional experience of his life.
After the bit completed, Conan took the stage for the first time – under the announcement of long-time friend and sidekick, Andy Richter. Upon first look, one could easily tell this was not network television. Even though TBS strived to replicate a familiar talk-show set, something was a bit off, although refreshingly raw. Raw in the respect to what viewers typically see in the late-night television landscape, but for those who have followed Conan from his beginnings on Late Night, everything would feel familiar.
Granted, the set was completely different and the backdrop was a bit off, but everything else felt extremely familiar to the late-night host's origins on NBC. An atmosphere that, thankfully, remained as the first episode continued.
The monologue that Conan chose for his first show was solely made up of jabs at NBC and the events that led him to become TBS’ new late-night staple. Visibly excited to get out there and deliver those hilarious punch-lines that he’s been working on all these months, the cameramen had a hard time keeping up with Conan as he bounced around the stage. Unfortunately, the cameramen would have a hard time following any of the action in this first episode – even framing a simple two shot seemed almost impossible, at times.
As Conan made his way behind the desk, a familiar face also joined him. After many years of being separated in television, Andy Richter finally returned to Conan’s side. A refreshing sight, no doubt, but one that helped drive the notion that Conan was returning to his roots. In an attempt to show NBC that he’s ready for a fight, Conan presented his infamous “masturbating bear” to cable television. While NBC owns the rights to any characters Conan created during his tenure, there is no way that the fledgling network would take legal action against their one-time employee.
When the respective celebrity guests for the night made their way out to be interviewed by the late-night giant (literally), Conan was visibly in his comfort zone. I wouldn’t exactly call Seth Rogan or Lea Michelle the best choices for a first show, as the interviews, at times, felt a tad bit forced, but I would chalk that up to nerves more than anything else and ultimately Conan was able to make it work.
Rounding-out the first show of Conan O’Brien’s hopefully lengthy talk show run on TBS, he took to the stage with Jack White to perform a number that he wrote with the famed musician. With the backdrop of some industrial work area, Conan closed the episode driving home the notion that he’s finally allowed to produce his own show, the way he wants.
Ultimately, the series premiere of Conan was a perfect representation of late-night entertainment, but more importantly, it represented a wonderful notion that the late-night veteran is taking a step back and returning to his origins. While the new show is working with an obviously smaller budget, it’s still as irreverent and entertaining as ever. Partially because Conan is working with the same crew that stood behind him on Late Night, but mostly because the return to basics allows Conan the freedom to do the one thing that prevented him from succeeding on The Tonight Show… writing the best jokes and bits as possible, without worrying about interference from the network.
Conan airs weeknights @11pm, on TBS
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