I’m not going to comment on Conan at any length for a while (I’ll probably come back to it in a few weeks, pick a random episode, and see what he’s doing differently, if anything), but I did want to say one thing about a bit last night, where O’Brien brought on SNL’s Will Forte playing TBS’s founder, Ted Turner. It’s normal for a talk show to have parodies of famous people. The thing about Forte’s Turner, though, is that it was absolutely nothing like Ted Turner at all. Instead it was a fantasy version of Turner, taking one or two things that are known about the guy (he’s rich, he’s Southern) and building a stock character, the macho rich Southern guy, out of that. It’s not like an SNL celebrity parody, where the usual m.o. is to find some trait the public associates with the famous person and then exaggerate it; Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford was nothing like Gerald Ford, but he was based on the public perception of Ford as a clumsy guy. But Turner’s public persona is that of the liberal rich guy who wants to use his money to save the planet, and Forte played him as Yosemite Sam.
This is a deliberate choice, though; it’s not like O’Brien’s writers and Forte don’t know what Turner acts like. The trope™ being used here is a common one, particularly beloved of the Harvard Lampoon/Simpsons generation O’Brien belongs to: the parody that is intentionally inaccurate. One modern classic example is from The Simpsons after O’Brien left, when the showrunners (two other Harvard Lampoon guys, Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein) decided to do an episode about George H.W. Bush moving to Springfield, but told the writer that they didn’t want it to be satire, they didn’t want it to be political, and they didn’t even want the portrayal of Bush to have that much to do with the real guy. Instead Bush was portrayed half as a generic crusty old guy and half as Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace. The joke was that there was a famous person being parodied and no actual parody was taking place — it’s a joke on our expectations as well as sort of a revolt against topical/satirical humour.
Update: As pointed out by two readers, the New York Times just had an article on another version of this concept. The Onion has been doing a series of parodies of Joe Biden that are not merely different from Biden’s public persona, but the exact opposite. Since Biden has been around for so long and his actual “foibles” are so well-known, there’s not that much to make fun of. But if you create a different character and call him “Joe Biden,” then you have an endless array of new Joe Biden jokes, as well as a running in-joke about the difference between the real guy and the parody. The article even quotes a Saturday Night Live writer to represent the traditional position, that a celebrity parody should actually have some connection to its subject, if only because the audience will either think a) That this is really bad satire or b) That the fantasy version of the celebrity is actually supposed to be real. But the Onion writers disagree; the head video writer tells the Times that people “kept trying to peg [Biden] as a buffoon. We just abandoned that and put him in silly uniforms and had him opening a crab shack.” When you abandon satire, you have more freedom to come up with jokes because you’re not tethered to reality.
So with the Forte version of Turner, and other celebrities who are inaccurately parodied by O’Brien’s writers, the joke is actually supposed to be that he’s playing a generic redneck billionaire instead of Ted Turner. I guess you could view it as a meta-joke about lazy comedy writing (as in, there are certain characteristics associated with rich Southern guys that we comedy writers use every time, whether they make sense or not), but mostly I think it’s just a way of avoiding politics and satire and the other stuff that some comedy writers aren’t that fond of — certainly O’Brien isn’t big on satire and topical humour, which is why his celebrity parodies often veer into fantasy. Instead you create a setup where we would normally expect some satire, and confound the expectations by just being silly.