It may seem like a demotion, and O’Brien has certainly joked about it as such, but for the first time, he won’t have to worry about honoring the mantle of his hero, Johnny Carson. He won’t have to worry nearly as much about network interference. He’ll have free rein over his show. So what in the world should we expect out of this man’s manic mind?
“I just have made a decision to enjoy the process more,” O’Brien said recently. “Let’s try things. I can be nit-picky. I think as time went on at ‘Late Night’ and ‘The Tonight Show,’ I was on top of everything all the time, in a very Type-A way, and sometimes you realize, ‘I can get in the way.’ That can be a deterrent. When I’m just being silly and loose with the writers, they come up with funnier stuff. I come up with funnier stuff.”
How will that translate in TV comedy terms? Let’s run down the Top Five list of things to look out for when watching ‘Conan’ this week.
1. How Loose Is Loose?
Despite the fact that O’Brien’s ‘Late Night’ famously included characters as lurid as “The Masturbating Bear” and “S&M Lincoln,” O’Brien himself doesn’t have a reputation as a dirty comedian. In fact, for most of his TV career, he’s been the clean-cut, self-effacing friendly guy who, underneath all the smartly dumb and sharp-witted nerd humor, still had a sense of ‘wow, gee whiz, mister, isn’t this all swell?’ about him. But how much of that was shaped by network television censors and his ambition to appeal to everyone and to be the next Carson?
Now, he’s had his dreams crushed on a nationwide stage. Now, he’s got a beard. Now, he’s on cable. Now he’s got creative control of a show he owns on a network where he will automatically be the only thing anyone talks about – a network which was so eager to get him that they finished all the paperwork for the deal in two days. They gave him everything he could have wanted, but it’s a network with a lower budget and a smaller studio that runs a real risk of looking cheap. So how far will he push the envelope? Will he be more blunt, crude or snarky? Will he make liberal use of profanity now that he’s got only himself and his fans to please? What can he do now that the broadcast networks’ late-night hosts can’t? We can probably expect to see him explore those boundaries early on, so watch for any moments where you might think ‘whoa, that may have gone a little too far.’ But don’t go painting him as too much of a rugged outlaw rebel. “Marshall McLuhan said TV is a cool medium,” O’Brien notes. “And I always thought, ‘If television is a cool medium, I’m f–ked.'”
2. How Will He Bait Lawsuits From NBC?
Speaking of that ursine autoeroticist, O’Brien’s former bosses own both of his old shows, and they’re known for being sticklers about that. They forced David Letterman to change the names of some of his regular bits when he moved to ‘The Late Show’ on CBS back in 1993, prompting then-NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw to do a walk-on spoof on his debut show to claim all his cue card jokes as NBC’s ‘intellectual property.’ O’Brien, however, seems unfazed by this. In his Rolling Stone interview, he said, ”If there’s something we did for a long time that we’ve established as ours, we’ll figure out a way to do it. I won’t be denied my Masturbating Bear! What I really wanna do is be sued over the bear and then appear in court with the Masturbating Bear. ‘Your Honor, this bear can’t help himself!'”
He also told New York Magazine, “I don’t imagine it’s going to be a big issue. I don’t see Brian Williams having any need for the Masturbating Bear. But I’m not looking to be provocative in that way.” Of course, that perfectly sets up current NBC Nightly News anchor Williams to reprise Brokaw’s Letterman joke and claim that diapered grizzly in the name of NBC. You know Williams will be game for it – he loves the late night comedy game.
The other side of this litigation coin is just how much O’Brien can say about the mess that cost him ‘The Tonight Show,’ and his predecessor/lead-in disaster/successor Jay Leno. His non-disparagement clause is over, and he could legally say whatever he wants – and you know people are going to be waiting with bated breath for any dig on Leno or former NBC head Jeff Zucker and quickly spreading it around the internet in a matter of seconds after it leaves his lips. That’s the elephant in the room that he’ll likely address, but he doesn’t seem too keen on rehashing the past. “Obviously, there’s going to be moments where it makes sense, like one of Johnny’s divorces, you know,” he admits, still using Carson as a role model. “If it comes up in the right context in the room and people start laughing, you deal with it. But I want to make new stuff, I want to make new comedy, I want to make new things. This is a new phase of my career that I hope lasts a long time, and I hope is very creative, so I don’t want to refer back. We’ve already had ideas that referred back to what was going on, and we grew bored of them really quickly. It was, eh, who cares?”
3. Who Will Be the Surprise Guests?
People were a bit surprised when the guest list for Conan’s first show came out, and Will Ferrell was nowhere to be found. After all, he was there for his last ‘Late Night’ and his first and last ‘Tonight Show.’ Turns out, he’s supposed to be in Europe promoting Megamind this week, but you have to think that they managed to get him to pre-tape some kind of comedy bit at the very least. Tom Hanks, who was on his second and final ‘Tonight Shows’ and was instrumental in getting the nickname ‘Coco’ to stick much to O’Brien’s chagrin, is slated for Tuesday’s episode. The first show has Jack White of the White Stripes, which is understandable due to their kinship and collaboration, Lea Michele of ‘Glee’ and Seth Rogen. That just doesn’t quite feel like a big enough splash as far as celebrity buzz, but that may be by design. “We also don’t all want it to be about the first week,” O’Brien notes. “‘Conan’s gonna cure cancer on the Wednesday of the first week!’ We want to hold the cancer curing till the second week.”
It’s still likely, though, that there are enough surprise appearances lined up that they may or may not be out the wazoo. Hopefully, we all remember that mighty epic film that was the opening of his first ‘Tonight Show,’ featuring his running across the country from New York to Los Angeles to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” They could riff on that, making a new film of O’Brien running from Universal Studios across town to the Warner Bros. lot that is his new home, zipping past working celebrities along the way. They could also do a riff on the opening of O’Brien’s first episode of ‘Late Night’ back in 1993, wherein he was shown as so overwhelmed by comparisons to Letterman that he was about to casually hang himself – that could certainly relate to these latest woes, but that’d likely be too obscure, and he’ll likely want to be brand new right out of the gate. There will be surprises, though – I think we can all be sure of that. We can also probably expect an appearance from George Lopez, whose show ‘Lopez Tonight’ is willingly bumping itself to midnight to make room for ‘Conan,’ since O’Brien popped in on Lopez last week.
4. How Do We Say ‘So Long’ to Max Weinberg?
As you may have heard, the venerable Max Weinberg of The Max Weinberg 7 (and more notably of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band) has left the building. He was with O’Brien from the beginning of ‘Late Night’ through the end of ‘The Tonight Show,’ and he was an incredible foil for shenanigans and tomfoolery. They built an on-screen character for him that cast him as an unmitigated sexual deviant that went right along with, while taking on most of the sidekick duties when O’Brien’s co-host Andy Richter left ‘Late Night’ to pursue a critically-acclaimed but commercially-disappointing acting career (you all should have watched ‘Andy Richter Controls the Universe’ and ‘Andy Barker, P.I.’).
Richter is back in the saddle now, and Jimmy Vivino has stepped into the leader’s shoes for what is now known as The Basic Cable Band. While that group still sports La Bamba, long one of O’Brien’s favorite go-to guys for mockery, and Mark Pender, who’s also game for anything, Vivino never really had an on-camera persona developed for him. Will that change now, or will Richter pick up that slack once again? Either way, we’ll likely get some kind of nod to Weinberg’s departure – and he might even stop by for the first show.
5. Will It Really Be That Much Different?
There’s a lot of expectation and hype going on with speculation as to what O’Brien’s newfound freedom will bring, but if last week’s ‘Show Zero’ stunt was any indication, it’s still going to follow the standard late-night talk show beats: monologue, comedy sketch, guest, musical guest, good night. It’s a great, classic set-up – so much so that many, many people are doing it now and the market is fairly diluted. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are the socially relevant ones, Leno is a sinking ship, Letterman’s the cantankerous sardonic crank, Jimmy Kimmel’s monotone style borders on apathy, Jimmy Fallon’s taken O’Brien’s upbeat positivity and raised it up to an effusively adorable bubbly hyperactivity, and Craig Ferguson has cornered the market on gleeful subversion of the format itself.
So how does O’Brien wedge back into this sea of middle-aged-white-guy gabfests? “To me job No. 1 is: make something that’s worth people talking about the next day,” he explains. “And if you don’t get it the first night, try again the second night. And keep trying, and keep trying until you come up with new things, and get to that place where I know we’re doing something that’s worthy of people’s time. I’ve always had that Field of Dreams philosophy: If you build it, they will come. And if we can do that, I think we’ll survive. I don’t know what to expect but my goal is not to try and please everybody all the time. That’s not something that gets you anywhere.”
If you’re in the key 18-34 demographic, Conan O’Brien is the guy you’ve grown up with. He’s likely the guy with your sensibility. But he’s pushing 50 years old now, and even he was a latecomer to the wonders of the internet. Yet, with the amazing outpouring of support he got from the nerd community during his fight with Leno and NBC, his eyes have been opened to its potential. While he wasn’t allowed to be funny on television, he became funny on Twitter, and when he gave an interview for Google employees after leaving NBC that became a hugely popular viral video, it was a wake-up call. “All these people watched the entire thing and it struck me that, wait a minute, what’s the difference between having a television show and talking to a computer?” he said. “There’s no going back. I’m trying to take everything that I’ve picked up or learned over the last ten months and apply it to this new show. Now, we’ll err, we’ll make mistakes, we’ll hit dead ends. But I don’t want to give up any ground or any of the cool things that we discovered. I’d like to fold all that into the show and see what it becomes. I don’t know what it’s going to become. I like this idea of people having a dialogue with me about the show, and maybe that informed where the show goes.”
So what can we really expect from ‘Conan’? It’s been over-hyped and overblown, but let’s be honest – it’s not going to be earth-shattering or revolutionary. It’s going to be a late-night talk show, and we’ve all seen hundreds of them before. It might have some more interactive features and it might have a few more cuss words, but it’ll still be a late-night talk show. But it’ll be funnier than Leno, hipper than Letterman, more energetic than Kimmel, more skillful than Fallon, and it’ll have better production values than Ferguson.
So let’s just welcome back our old friend and see what he’s got to say.