When I talked in an earlier post about basic cable shows that are “cheaper, nich-ier versions of broadcast shows,” I left out the ultimate examples (USA and TNT) but also Conan, which may be one of the clearest recent illustrations of this principle. The question before O’Brien’s TBS show began was whether it would revolutionize talk shows, taking all the risks he couldn’t take on The Tonight Show, or whether it would just basically be his Tonight Show with less money. It’s been far closer to the latter than the former. It’s more entertaining than the current Leno Tonight Show and provides a nice alternative for viewers who don’t like Leno and find Letterman too nasty — but it’s not a re-thinking of the entire talk show format, the way The Daily Show became under Stewart and The Colbert Report always has been.
Not that every show needs to be a complete re-thinking of its format, and that’s not O’Brien’s way anyway; he’s sort of a closet traditionalist. A more or less traditional talk show is what he’s always going to be doing, particularly earlier in the evening (his show airs at 11 in the U.S., unlike here, where it’s at midnight). As Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson demonstrate, and as O’Brien and Letterman demonstrated when they were at 12:30, the best place to try unusual things is really late at night on a broadcast network. Conan is a bit more about doing what some of those other cable hits do: give us what we can get on the broadcast networks, just a little (but not too) different.
Here’s O’Brien last night doing a typical late-night bit, a parody of a popular video — the one that is going to make its artist $1 million on her parents’ $2,000 investment.