Conan O’Brien’s latest reincarnation as the host of a basic-cable talk show in a little something called Conan — well, it’s not a revolutionary move, but it is a new challenge for the beleaguered redhead. Rather than stepping into a well-established franchise (say, The — cough, cough — Tonight Show), O’Brien is adding himself to the squadron of white male nighttime hosts from whom an already-fractured audience must choose.
The controversy that birthed Team Coco has so dominated what Jon Stewart might call ”the Conan O’Brien narrative” that it resulted in palpable self-consciousness during the first week of Conan. A taped bit about his exit from NBC that included a Godfather-style execution, and his remark that his entrance applause ”lasted longer than my last job,” seemed uncharacteristically self-indulgent for a guy who built his reputation connecting to his youngerthan- the-other-guys’ audiences. Second-night guest Tom Hanks put it most succinctly when he joked that the host needed to ”blame something on someone other than Jay.”
But by the end of the first week, O’Brien was already settling into a more relaxed rhythm, beginning to use the TBS set to interact with audience members spontaneously, and engaging in less Conan-centric conversation with his greatest asset, sidekick and underappreciated national treasure Andy Richter. Now that he’s back, it’s clearer than ever that O’Brien is the crucial bridge between one generation (Leno, Letterman, Carson) and the one that followed (Kimmel, Fallon). It’s Conan who pioneered the seamless moves from topical monologue jokes to outside-the-studio filmed segments and absurdist recurring characters (yes, the Masturbating Bear has already reared his head).
Sure, the marketplace is more crowded now, and the competition is more fierce. O’Brien’s 11 p.m. time slot places his first half in competition with Jon Stewart and his second half against Leno and Letterman. Thus his show literally straddles the TV industry’s biggest conundrum: Do we go hip and niche or still try for a broad mass audience? But O’Brien is a good fit for TBS — he’s as accessible as the network’s Family Guy reruns and Tyler Perry sitcoms, while at the same time, he’s retained his devilish streak. I loved it when he introduced the founder of the Turner Broadcasting System, Ted Turner, and it turned out to be a snarlingly funny mustachioed Will Forte riding a stuffed buffalo. It’s likely that few on Team Coco even knew the ”T” in TBS stands for Turner, but that’s why O’Brien is so good: He’s always making his audience come up to his level, instead of lowering himself to theirs. He’s gonna do just fine. But more Andy, please. B+