Conan, "Baa Baa Blackmail": back to basic (cable)

Quick Take: Conan, "Baa Baa Blackmail"
"Inside it smells like tears."  - Andy Richter


Review: Conan, "Baa Baa Blackmail"
(S0101) Ten months, 540 tweets, and a nationwide tour have passed since Conan O’Brien last hosted a talk show, but tonight the wait is over.  There’s been a lot of promotion and anticipation during that time, and no one is as excited as me for Coco to return.  The late night talk show landscape is pretty saturated, but Conan brings a unique energy that has been missing from TV this year.  Now he’s finally back: so how did it go?

On the surface, nothing is groundbreaking about this new iteration.  Conan is sticking with the traditional late night format: the show opens with a monologue, moves into another comedy bit or two, and is followed by celebrity interviews and a musical act.  There’s a desk, a band, and a stage, and Andy Richter is back as the announcer/sidekick. 

Despite this, there’s a palpable new spirit that’s been infused to the proceedings.  Conan seems loose, confident, and fired up.  He’s still his quirky, zany self, but there’s a rebellious aggression behind the silliness, and it’s fueled by the passionate support from his fans.   The new set is sleek and simple (with a remote control moon over a seaside backdrop, no less!), but it’s also much more cozy.  The audience comes right down to the stage floor, allowing for maximum interaction between Conan and the crowd.  His Tonight Show studio, for as glamorous as it looked, was a mammoth stage that seemed intent on coldly maximizing the distance between Conan, his audience, and the band.  This new studio seems to fit him better.

The premiere kicked off with a “Last season on Conan” cold open, which briefly recapped his refusal to move to 12:00 followed by a gag in which NBC mobsters gunned him down.  He then began his job search, which included failed stints as a children’s clown, Burger King cashier, and most awesomely, an interview with Don Draper himself (I love Jon Hamm for doing these sorts of things).  Larry King also makes a cameo to talk Conan off a ledge, which leads to his decision to go to basic cable in the form of TBS.  This was a hilarious way to give a faux-recap of their time off, and a great way kick off the new show. 

After sharp and colorful title cards with a snazzy new theme song, the monologue got underway. “Welcome to my second annual first show,” he said, before introducing himself as “the guy from Twitter.”  The quality of the jokes was less significant than the joy of seeing Conan back with his usual physical antics (string dance!).  And yes, the Masturbating Bear made an appearance, though he was not referred to by name. 

Back at the desk, Conan and Andy riffed on their mobile moon and on some Conan Halloween masks.  “Inside it smells like tears,” Richter said, in what might have been the line of the night.  Conan is at his best when he gets to just screw around and be silly (some of my favorite moments were during the writers’ strike when he had nothing to do but kill time), so this segment was probably my favorite of the night.

The honorary first guest, from the openly rigged online poll, was Arlene Wagner, curator of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum.  I guess it was too much to hope that Jack Nicholson would make his first talk show appearance in decades.  Wagner simply walked across the stage, making way for Seth Rogen, the real first guest. Rogen and second guest Lea Michele (Glee) were both clearly excited to be there, and Conan led them both through funny interviews.  Rogen talked about his marriage proposal and his “medical” marijuana usage, and Michele tamely addressed the GQ controversy.  Conan rocked out with musical guest Jack White (backed by Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band), and that brought show number one to a close.

I’m sure some people will be disappointed that this was basically business-as-usual for a late night show, but I thought it hit the right notes.  This is the type of show Conan wants to do, and it’s the type of show that resulted in fans embracing him, so there’s no reason to expect or wish for a drastic change.  I do get the sense that they will be taking more risks and having more fun, but the formula is not going to go away, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

As for its success? I’m sure the premiere will debut to really strong ratings, and they will probably stay high for a week or two before tapering downward.  Hopefully they’ll stabilize at a respectable number. One problem Conan had with The Tonight Show is that he seemingly had a lot more supporters than he had people who actually watched his show regularly.  Will the Team Coco fans stay tuned for the long haul this time? 

On a related note, last week news broke that for the first time ever, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show beat The Tonight Show and The Late Show in the 18-49 demographic.  This is both good and bad news for Conan.  Good news: it proves that a cable talk show can, in fact, beat the big boys on the networks.  Although they aren’t direct time slot competitors, nothing would be greater than for Conan to be competitive with Leno in the ratings game.  Bad news:  The Daily Show is at the height of its popularity, in the exact same time slot, and with an audience that is probably pretty similar to Conan’s.  Now, both shows replay later in the night, and both are available online the next day, so hopefully people who want to watch both can work it out, but this could be a bit of a hurdle.

A few other notes:

  • In one neat modification, each episode is given an individual title.  Tonight’s was “Baa Baa Blackmail.”  I’m not sure how that connects to any of the episode’s content, so these titles may just be random, but it’s still a unique twist for a talk show.
  • Conan is apparently keeping the beard.  I’m glad.  He looks cool with it, and it adds color to his face.  Good choice.
  • “People ask me why I named the show Conan. I did it so I’d be harder to replace.”
  • What did you think about Conan’s debut? 

    Video: Conan, "Baa Baa Blackmail"
    Check out this saucy preview for Conan's new show, from YouTube: 

    By Adam Wattenbarger

    About the author

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    1 Comment
    On: Tuesday, November 9, 2010
    Mike Proper said:

    Speaking of Jon Hammios, he made a spectacular cameo on the season finale of Children's Hospital on Sunday too.  


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