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Subtraction, but No Additions: The New-Look ‘Conan’ Will Get Better If It Gets Weirder

Conan O’Brien debuted his new pared-down, half-hour show on Tuesday, but the immediate returns don’t point to the format-busting revolution we were promised

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Conan O’Brien hopped on his spare new stage in his swank new leather jacket to debut his experimental new-look talk show Tuesday night, and when the studio audience’s warm, old, familiar applause finally died down, he had a new way to jovially admonish them: “Ladies and gentlemen, we did not have time for that.” Yes, America, Conan, the TBS late-night enterprise O’Brien debuted in 2010 and put on a three-month hiatus in October 2018, is back with a fresh, modular, theoretically more anarchic outlook—no desk, no suit, no backing band, no outdated Johnny Carson–era rule book. The biggest change: It is now only a half-hour long. This proved, in the case of Episode 1 of his grand reopening, to be a blessing.

He is easy to love and impossible to root against, Conan O’Brien, who at 55 is our longest-tenured late-night host. This remains an unpleasant shock to those of us who still remember his wobbly and definitely more anarchic 1993 debut as David Letterman’s successor over at NBC’s Late Night, and much later, his catastrophically short-lived tenure as Jay Leno’s successor on The Tonight Show, a calamitous reign that began in June 2009 and barely lasted half a year. Tuesday night, in fact, marked nine years to the day of Conan’s last Tonight Show, which took place on January 22, 2010, featured a much more raucous crowd, and peaked early with a gag in which O’Brien announced his plan to bankrupt NBC by buying “a rare fossil skeleton of a giant ground sloth” from the Smithsonian and using it to spray beluga caviar on a Picasso.

The first episode of Conan 2.0 would’ve been a smashing success if it’d offered up even one joke or image half that loopy and ridiculous and indelible. No dice. What we got instead was the same comforting but stultifying late-night formula with less furniture in half the time. Which is, OK, an improvement of sorts, an addition by subtraction. O’Brien’s challenge going forward is to dream up a few actual additions.

So here, in the course of a brisk 20-odd minutes, is what happened on the new Conan. He did an abbreviated monologue with very few nods to current events (“the three-month Conan shutdown is officially over”) and plenty of his trademark self-laceration. (“I assure you, it’s gonna feel like two hours,” he noted of his new format. “That’s the effect I have.”) He and acerbic cohost Andy Richter, who at least still gets a chair to perch on, did a mild, wayward This Is Us parody that featured a Milo Ventimiglia cameo and the single funniest line of the show, wherein Richter observed that the new set, with its austere glitz, “looks like a strip club in Grand Theft Auto.” And then Tom Hanks dropped in for an aimless interview, mostly about how he likes to post photos of lost gloves on Instagram.

This chat was not, strictly speaking, without its charms. (O’Brien: “What are you insecure about?” Hanks: “Well, like you, a squeaky voice and a big ass.”) But it was hardly the format-busting revolution we were promised. O’Brien spent his three-month hiatus in a typically restless state, doing a quick stand-up tour, dropping by Japan for the latest episode of his Conan Without Borders travel series, and debuting his star-studded new podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. In interviews, he’s talked up the new half-hour Conan as a way to rattle his own late-night-talk-show cage, a lawless and boundaryless way to both reinvigorate and terrify him. “Whatever time I have left making comedy, I would like to feel 100 percent engaged,” he told The New York Times this week. “I want to feel like I’m having fun, and I want to be a little bit scared—that’s what we’re doing.”

That worrisome phrasing—whatever time I have left making comedy—is a callback to his other chat with the Times, in the form of last week’s Q&A with Dave Itzkoff in which O’Brien took a startlingly morbid approach to his legacy: “This is going to sound grim, but eventually, all our graves go unattended.” He meant that to sound inspiring, or at least freeing, and he used another comedy legend to explain why:

I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.

On the one hand, O’Brien is right—you do an episode of a late-night show, and unless something goes viral, by the next morning it’s lost and never seen again, and who cares? Tuesday night’s Conan was unremarkable, a C-minus monologue into a C-minus sketch into a C-minus celebrity interview. You never regret the time you spend with Tom Hanks, who accidentally yanked off his microphone and honored his late friend and colleague Penny Marshall by doing a C-plus imitation of her and refreshingly had nothing whatsoever to promote. And the TV landscape just felt a little empty without O’Brien, who will do a show like this Monday through Thursday night, and like practically every current talk show hosted by anyone, many nights it’ll evaporate on contact, ephemeral and disposable by design.

But what makes the new Conan worth keeping an eye on is the classic and visceral tension between how seriously he takes the late-night format and how seriously he takes the idea of violently disrupting it. “This concept that I must be the king of late night, I don’t even know what that means anymore,” he told the Times this week. “I don’t know who that is anymore. It’s an outmoded concept.” He’s not a Trump-resisting political junkie, or a fresh-faced zeitgeist sensation like Desus & Mero. But the brand is still strong, and the platonic ideal of that brand is still total chaos, and with less time to fill and less fealty than ever to pay to the way Carson used to do it, the new-look Conan will get better if and when it gets weirder.

The big idea here is that any one show can go anywhere and do anything, with plenty of bonus material to shunt off to his podcast or his Team Coco web empire or whatever else he dreams up. O’Brien knows he’s in the Content business, and he’s both at peace with it and ready, gleefully, for war. His guests Wednesday night are the cast of The Good Place. I hope he turns the whole 20-odd minutes over to Janet. I hope none of it makes any sense. I hope the end result is worth remembering.