Here I am watching the first episode of Conan, ready to write some thoughts on it. We’re getting it an hour later than in the States (after the abandonment of the Comedy Network’s ill-fated attempt to move Jon Stewart to 10), so I’ve had to avoid the internet to keep from reading spoilers: will there be guests? Will there be a couch? Will the audience applaud when Conan walks out? I want these things to surprise me.
It was inevitable that there would be some sort of “how we got here” pre-taped bit, but I actually was hoping he’d surprise us and just do a regular opening; the parodic fake-autobiographical opening to a show is so standard that even Jay Leno did it when he came back to “The Tonight Show.” Conan’s opening was much funnier than Leno’s (and even had the device of repeating previous lines we heard in the segment, which he must love since “Marge vs. the Monorail” used it on”The Simpsons”), but it seems to tell us what this show will be like: not a reinvention of the form, just a comfortably familiar talk show hopefully done well. It’s actually very important for the show to give that impression; despite the jokes about basic cable and the lower budget, they want to let us know that we’re not going to be going down a step from O’Brien’s big-network shows. The comfort of familiarity is the best thing they can give us.
That said, it’s fun to point out the slightly different things. The first one, up front, is the idea of having an episode title, an old-timey, lurid title (“Bye Bye Blackmail”) with a title card (complete with copyright logo) and Richter announcing it. I suspect we’ll be seeing more old-timey stuff or references to old TV and old talk shows; O’Brien loves this stuff, and on a network that mostly makes its money showing reruns, there may be less pressure to keep his material up to date.
Now, to the most important thing about a talk show — the set. It’s a regular talk-show set, of course. It’s already been remarked that it looks more like a Tonight Show set than his actual Tonight Show rig, which was more glossy and “modern.” This one looks smaller and simpler, but may offer more opportunity to move around; it looks like the design crew and the camera crew wants to create a feeling of intimacy and close contact with the studio audience, like O’Brien is interacting directly with them.
As we get into act two, with Richter settling down at the couch (an important improvement on Tonight was getting him over to the couch earlier and earlier as the show went on), it’s clear and unsurprising that most of this episode’s material is about Conan himself. That makes it a bit harder to evaluate; we’re getting an idea of the format, namely the Tonight Show With Conan O”Brien format. But to get an idea of what the comedy style of the show will be, we’ll have to wait for later episodes when presumably they will be making jokes about other things.
I will say that I am getting burned out on Ricky Gervais. If he does another show of his own I’ll watch it, but his “special” appearances are getting less and less special because he does so many of them, diluting his schtick and making me feel like he’s a bit smug. He’s a very talented man, don’t get me wrong; I just fear that as far as U.S. TV is concerned he’s becoming Andy Millman in real life.
The Seth Rogen interview (following their official First Guest) is not going to break any records for interview greatness. One thing that occurs to me about many talk-show interviews with entertainment figures is that the hosts often are not interested in asking them show business questions. They usually steer the conversation to relationships, or weed, or relationships and weed. Both the hosts and the guests have their reasons for this. The hosts want to keep the interviews from getting “inside baseball” and scaring viewers away. The guests want to convey the impression that they’re regular people. And both guest and host are going for relatability, thinking that we’ll be more interested in relationships than what these people do for a living.
But I feel like if there’s one thing cable could do, at least theoretically, it’s bringing back more discussions of work and show business and the reasons why we actually pay to watch these people. But Conan doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to do that, because I get the impression that this doesn’t interest him a great deal, at least regarding some of his guests. Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Fallon are more likely to talk about show business, but they’re on networks (however late); cable could, again theoretically, do for entertainment what The Daily Show does for politics, but it’ll take a different host with a different set of interests. In the Lea Michele interview, there’s very little about the process of actually working on the show, and that’s fine; I’m just saying that there could be an alternate-universe talk show where the host and guest spend more time telling us things we didn’t know already. Like I said, though, I don’t expect that show to be O’Brien’s.
The musical guest segment introduces what I suspect will be a fairly frequent occurrence, O’Brien joining in on the number. I think this (and he’s not the only one to do it) can be taken too far, since the point of having a musical guest is for them to perform, not the host. But what the heck; they performed on the tour together, and this late at night many people have already tuned out anyway; it’s the perfect time for the host to relax and have some fun. The song is Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock,” which I know best from The Girl Can’t Help It.
And Conan ends the show by talking more about himself. As I said, there will be other subjects later on, though he will be at the centre of his show in a way that Leno is not. O’Brien’s stuff is largely about himself (or rather his persona) and how he reacts to it. Leno is almost the opposite; even when he was at his best, he specialized in more distant, observational humour, where he analyzes other people and doesn’t reveal too much about himself. Carson was somewhere in between these two extremes, which is one of the reasons why he was so successful: you felt like the show was about him but not all about him.