Wednesday, June 10, 2009

TV review: Conan's 'Tonight' sticks with weird, to mixed results

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow chats with Conan O'Brien
during the first week of his new show.
(Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC Universal)

By John Thomason

When Conan O’Brien made the cover of the June 1 edition of TV Guide, it was a no-brainer. His succession as the fifth host of the venerated Tonight Show, which began that very evening, is an epochal television moment some 17 years in the making.

But when he was wished well by none other than Barack Obama (as part of the president’s lengthy White House exclusive with Brian Williams), that was something else entirely, giving the new host of the late-night staple instant mainstream legitimacy. Not that he hasn’t earned it.

As the host of NBC’s 12:30 a.m. show Late Night for 16 years, he’s watched competitors such as Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn and Craig Ferguson try – and fail – to best him in the ratings. But when he started Late Night, he was filling a niche for edgy, practically uncensored, youth-oriented humor in a time slot geared toward younger night owls.

It’s only an hour’s difference, but the transition to 11:30 is major. Conan’s devout following will adjust its schedules (or more likely its DVRs) accordingly, but what of the nearly 6 million viewers accustomed on the stodgy – crueler critics than I might say fogeyish – humor of Leno, who might find masturbating bears and cigar-chomping dog puppets a bit lowbrow for their tastes?

The fact is, O’Brien is going to lose many of those viewers. While novelty, curiosity and an aggressive marketing campaign ensured a strong Nielsen score for last Monday’s premiere (besting The Late Show and Nightline combined), ratings have understandably dropped off each day since.

Conan has done his best, each night, to ease Tonight Show viewers from the comforts of Leno to the potential weirdness of himself, mostly by stressing the host’s own weirdness in the strange land of Los Angeles (Conan and almost the entire cast and crew of his Late Night show relocated to L.A.).

But as the show enters its second week, we haven’t really seen much of effort to modify his tried-and-true formula. O’Brien’s show-opening, physical-humor regimen remains the same. His protracted mimery and excessive mugging still take up too much airtime. The band is the same. The writing is the same. The monologue is still a half-brilliant, half-floundering affair rife with too many stale Bill Clinton and George Bush cracks (And can we retire the Kirstie Alley fat jokes, please?). In his recurring routines, O’Brien’s self-referential smirk continues to pummel a fourth wall that he long bulldozed through.

Andy Richter and Conan O'Brien predict
the news of the year 3000.
(Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC Universal)

Most of the favored sketches from Late Night are back, if a bit revamped, to mixed results. In the Year 2000 has become the considerably less funny In the Year 3000, but O’Brien’s Celebrity Survey bit is still a knockout (Example question: “As a kid, I was always picked on by…” Stephen Baldwin wrote “My brothers.” Jeff Goldblum wrote “bullies.” Larry King wrote “velociraptors.”) At least one newer segment O’Brien has tried out was dead on arrival – an insufferably long Twitter joke that saw celebrity tweets being read by a broadcaster with the gusto of monster-truck announcer.

The new set, constructed solely for the show, finds Conan awash in blue, speaking front of a cobalt backdrop of geometric shapes. It’s economical and understated, and I can’t see how anyone would have a problem with it. Conan’s old sidekick Andy Richter is back as announcer, though he hasn’t been given much to do yet.

I’m guessing The Tonight Show With Jay Leno’s diehards won’t respond to some of Conan’s most inspired new skits – like his turn as “Conando” in a Spanish telenovela from this past Monday’s show or a hilarious toy model of traffic stalled on L.A.’s highways because of a giant baby filling out a New York Times crossword puzzle and a dog celebrating a bar mitzvah – they way that laughed it up at Jaywalking and Headlines.

But O’Brien doesn’t need those viewers. Besides, most of Leno’s diehards will probably prefer the 10 p.m. early bird special of his new nightly hour, which begins in September. Conan’s Tonight Show as the potential to be great if it disregards precedent (and the conventional wisdom) and brings provocative edge and unpredictable zaniness, circa 1993 Late Night.

The show may have a historical legacy, but that’s no reason to pander to its forbears. As Conan told TV Guide in that cover story this month, Johnny Carson gave him the best advice he ever received: “Just be yourself. It's the only way to make it work.”

That applies as much now as it ever has.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH CONAN O'BRIEN; 11:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, NBC.

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