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The Talk Show That Time Forgot

Six years and a generation of late-night hosts later, Conan is still just trying to impress Johnny Carson

Kristian Hammerstad
Kristian Hammerstad

We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.

There is still joy, and grace, and triumph in watching a Conan O’Brien joke bomb. Failure excites him; fallout is his true medium. Craters are opportunities, in that scrambling out of them is good exercise. “Listen to this story,” he begins now, readying another controlled demolition. “You’re not gonna believe it.”

It’s a Tuesday night. His guests are Billy Gardell (a.k.a. Mike from Mike & Molly), Draymond Green, and who/whatever Finish Ticket is. Take all the time you need, man.

“A 700-pound woman — 700-pound woman — is trying to hit 1,000 pounds, to reach her goal of becoming the world’s fattest woman.”

A few whoops from the crowd.

“She’s trying to gain — yeah.” He thrusts one finger in the air. Here we go.

“Although she still plans to put ‘700 pounds’ on her Tinder profile.”

Mild laughter. Not great, not terrible. Perfectly acceptable. A replacement-level monologue joke. But Conan brushes off the crowd.

“Now.” Big smile. “You know the way people lie? On their Tinder profile?” Near-silence now. “No?” He turns to his left. “Wow. Andy, that joke, man.”

Cue Andy Richter, eyeglasses in one hand, paper cup of coffee in the other. The show’s avatar of violent nonchalance. Eternally on the verge of blurting out a “NO!” just as emphatic as Ed McMahon’s “YES!”

“Yeah,” Andy says. “She wants to seem thinner than she is in real life, so she” — stammering, gesturing awkwardly with the eyeglasses — “puts less weight on the Tinder profile than what she actually is. I think it’s hilarious.”

Big laugh. Who doesn’t love Andy?

Conan thanks him. Another pause. More awkward silence.

Conan: “There are jokes that get laughs.”

Andy: “Sure.”

“And there are jokes that get less.”

“Right.”

“But every now and then, you tell a joke.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“And you hear a silence you never hear on earth.”

Huge laugh. No, Conan! We love you, too, Conan!

He takes a few steps toward the crowd, toward the camera, toward you. Smiling.

“You hear — no!” Waving off the applause. “Hold on! I could hear individual hearts beating in the audience.”

Hahahaha.

“I could hear cells dividing.”

Hahahahahahaha.

He turns to Andy. “We should send that off. That should be studied by comedians. Because that, what you just participated in, was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime study. Give yourselves a hand.”

And the crowd does, boisterously, with Conan murmuring beneath it. “That was crazy. That was just crazy. That was — .” He does a goofy non-sequitur dance, one of thousands in his repertoire. “All right. Thank you. We’re all good now. We’re all good.”

One last pause.

“Show’s free.”

True for the live audience, but not for us: It’s cable. But yeah, Conan’s doing fine. Not great, not terrible. Well, sometimes a little terrible. A replacement-level talk show. With David Letterman out, the towering, gangly, somehow still-youthful walking meme has been doing the late-night-host thing longer than anyone else currently doing it, closing in on a quarter-century. In November, Conan will celebrate six years at TBS; the words “Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band” are the only immediate nod to your host’s reduced circumstances. His closest ratings competitors now are Adult Swim and The Daily Show, which both regularly beat him; his Monday-night lead-in, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, has way more critical burn and of-its-time ferocity.

But that’s a skid worth leaning into: He’s a throwback now, a classicist. Johnny Carson’s heir in spirit if not body, presiding over a modest niche worth celebrating, or at least preserving. The long-clichéd complaint is that the big late-night shows now — with Fallon comfortably lapping Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, while Seth Meyers and James Corden hold down the wee hours — are just viral-content farms, unsightly in their whimsical thirst. As the instant-classic Difficult People line goes: “Isn’t it funny how Jimmy Fallon slowly turned The Tonight Show into a children’s birthday party?” (He has also lately taken to tousling Donald Trump’s hair and greeting Hillary Clinton while wearing a surgical mask, proving that the clown show never really stops.) And all of ’em are searching for the easy, iconic, endlessly repeatable gimmick that might land them on the cover of Rolling Stone.

It’s not that Conan never did that stuff (Triumph the Insult Comic Dog is immortal), or that he isn’t still trying (his “Clueless Gamer” series is a rare example of enjoyable, non-toxic mainstream video game content). But he’s far less thirsty about it, and it carries the whiff of noble conscientious objection. Conan’s format is usually (and unusually) rigid: monologue, cheesy and usually deconstructionist bit with Richter, first guest, second guest, third guest, out. Mostly just straight interviews, thanks. The seams are often visible on those other shows, the viral bits detachable and the rest clearly disposable. They’re all busy trying to impress the internet, but Conan’s still trying to impress, uh, Carson.

This is bigger than him: He is defending the late-night talk show as it was at the medium’s imperial height, back when theoretically everyone watched, straight through, in real time. Even his monologues have a workmanlike and nostalgic rhythm. “Listen to this,” or something of the sort. Joke setup. Clap. “Yeah.” Pause. Crowd reaction, if applicable. Punch line. You come to love the clap-yeah. It’s all very loose and hypnotic, like the ideal free throw technique. It might put you to sleep. But that was always part of the classic talk-show agenda, too.

The problem is that over the course of 20-plus years, this universe got wayyy bigger than him. His historical instincts are admirable, until you watch him religiously for a week or two, at which point you might conclude that distilling hour-long late-night talk shows down to the funniest 90 seconds and watching them on the internet the following morning is one of the best ideas millennials ever had. Conan just wasn’t made for these times, which is a scathing indictment of the times.

Your last vivid memory of Conan is likely of the man at his angriest, ignobly ejected from The Tonight Show in early 2010, and bowing out with a weeks-long symphony of surrealist rage. He’d been doing a thing where he vowed to waste as much of NBC’s money as possible while he was still on the air; the apex came on his final night with an ancient, giant sloth skeleton, purchased at exorbitant cost from the Smithsonian, spraying beluga caviar on an “original” Picasso.

You likely felt terrible for him, indignant on his behalf, and preemptively warm toward whatever his next endeavor might be. “Team Coco” was born. His live “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” variety-show tour was great; the resulting full-length documentary about it, pointedly titled Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, was deeply uncomfortable. “I walked away from the greatest franchise in history because I refused to go on at midnight,” he laments just before taking some random stage. “Here I am on at midnight.” But “the greatest franchise in history” is pushing it. You always sensed, even at the time he was viciously fighting for it, that The Tonight Show was not the hallowed and immortal and immutable crown jewel he always believed it to be. Not anymore, anyway. It was always fated to devolve into a children’s birthday party. Nowadays, a TV show must pander to the internet — and the nonexistent attention spans the internet engendered — or die. Conan was a gleeful disruptor in the ’90s, but ask other gleeful ’90s disruptors how the 21st century’s treating them lately. His best-case scenario going forward was to regard it all as a bullet dodged.

Conan on TBS made sense. It still does. That is its blessing and its curse. It makes no effort to disguise its “wacky but painstakingly structured retirement home” vibe. Critics and experts check in periodically and find much to like — his visit to Cuba in early 2015 was cheering and adventurous and oddly beautiful — but also much to nod off in the presence of. The show itself is profoundly stale. Blame the format, sure. Or blame Donald Trump for destabilizing satire forevermore. Nearly every Conan monologue starts with Trump now, but the jokes are pleasant, dutiful, toothless — he will never be a ranter, an eviscerator. All his loathing is directed firmly inward. He’s an agnostic among zealots. There’s a high road to take here, too: You won’t catch Conan tousling a presidential candidate’s hair these days. Just don’t ruminate on why.

The guest list quality varies. True, last week’s slate mixed in lots of Ringer favorites, from Nicole Byer to Pamela Adlon to Timothy Olyphant to Regina Hall, whose rapport with Conan is disturbingly explicit. There’s a drop-off from the Fallon/Kimmel/Colbert tier here, but not a fatal one. (Fuck Draymond Green, though.) But nearly every guest interview, regardless of how mundane, drags on past a commercial break, and the musical guests are who-dats in the extreme. Conan’s best path now — and the most Johnny Carson–esque, really — might be to quadruple down on newer comedians: My favorite guest last week was the sagely loopy standup Mary Mack, who is extremely from Wisconsin and has apparently coined the portmanteau alcoholistic.

There are still times when it all comes together. Last week had a couple of gags that might’ve invaded your Twitter feed: Apple AirPods flying out of silhouettes’ ears, enraged geese protesting Sully, etc. If you want the overall highlight, here’s a very dumb bit about Italy legalizing public masturbation that made me laugh like an idiot, especially when they reverse the footage of Andy’s Alitalia flight taking off. Conan’s still at his best at his stupidest, and at his most self-aware about it.

My favorite bit of his in 2016 is when he took a young staffer out for a driver’s ed lesson, a slow-burning 12-minute joyride costarring Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, Popeyes chicken, and a piñata full of weed. Hart’s improvised bit about the perils of drive-by trash-talking when you don’t have power windows is funnier than most standups’ entire sets. James Corden’s beloved and wildly overexposed “Carpool Karaoke” is the obvious point of comparison here, but Conan’s version is so less craven and forced and grating in its excessive exuberance. It’s obviously a celebrity-fueled movie promo, which will forever be the central life force for all these talk shows, but that’s not so terrible, if the premise is just absurd enough to distract you from the fact that you’re basically watching an ad. This tradition, too, is worth preserving, and injecting with just the right amount of bootleg anarchy.

He’s still got it; it’s a matter of how far you’re willing to dig to find it, and when, and how. Conan got a heartwarmingly enormous amount of applause when he came out for Thursday’s show, and he both milked it and sought to actively quash it with the expert zeal of someone hell-bent on isolating the awkward silence hiding in every deafening wave of adoration. “I would say 70 percent of that was sarcastic,” he finally said, when it was quiet enough to hear anything he said. “Easily.” Even Richter tried to talk Conan out of dismissing it: “I like you better than you do.” They don’t make ’em like this anymore, mostly because being like this must be exhausting.

Conan O’Brien in 2016 is a very pleasant reminder of the way it used to be, and an uneasy reminder of why it’s otherwise not that way anymore.