Conan O’Brien: beating expectations since 1993

As the countdown clock to the right of this post shows, Conan O’Brien is just hours away from being funny again on television.
I’ve been a fan of O’Brien for 17 years, ever since he came out of nowhere to establish a presence in late night. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with him many times over the years, in person and on the phone. He’s smart and very reflective and one of my all-time favourite interviews.
He was dismissed early and often in those first tough seasons when he was the surprise choice to replace David Letterman as host of NBC’s Late Night, where he was literally renewed 13 weeks at a time. In reviewing the just released Shout Factory boxed set The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series, I caught a scene where Paula (Janeane Garafalo) tried to bluff Larry (Garry Shandling) that she’s leaving to take a producers job at Conan (a fledgling series at the time of the early ’90s episode). Sanders asks how long she thinks that will last; Paula swallows hard and tells him she’ll be in early Monday.
O’Brien outlasted his critics and eventually established his own successful brand in late night, so successful that when NBC finally gave him the prize he always wanted–The Tonight Show–it was a mistake. It was too late to box O’Brien into that old brand. He’d already helped define the new.
Which is what he will attempt to do all over again tonight.
I’m a bit surprised that some of my colleagues are as willing to write off O’Brien today–before they’ve seen the show–as people were so many years ago. “Conan is so over before it even starts,” writes John Doyle is Monday’s Globe and Mail. Rob Salem was equally dismissive in Sunday’s Toronto Star.
Maybe they didn’t see those amazing last weeks of O’Brien’s Tonight Show. Every minute of those broadcasts was edgy and electric. Same back during the writer’s strike when O’Brien was forced to go live and dangerous, backed into a corner and performing scared. Best late night TV ever.
To say O’Brien has been passed by and that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert now own late night is ridiculous. After a month of campaigning and promotion for their live rallies in Washington, D.C., Stewart took The Daily Show past Letterman and Leno in the 18-49 ratings. For one week. After 11 years of trying.
Those rallies, as Bill Maher suggested Friday on HBO’s Real Time, were pointless and a bit fat missed opportunity. Stewart and Colbert look less smart the more they venture outside their own studios (especially Colbert’s dismal appearance earlier this year before a House subcommittee).
Johnny Carson set the tone: you don’t show your hand in late night politics. The assumption is that liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, are both targets and target audience. Be the court jesters. Make ’em laugh and leave politics to the grown ups.
O’Brien has always been about the funny. He’s criticized for sometimes being low brow or sophomoric, that bits like the masturbating bear or Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog are cheap shots aimed at nerdy males. Colbert and Stewart are the new heroes, it is being said, changing the agenda of American politics. O’Brien is too silly to be taken seriously.
Put him in Alcatraz, then, next to the cast of SCTV and anybody else who ever made me laugh out loud on television. O’Brien and his Harvard-educated writers can craft a clever joke with anybody, but they also can reach audiences on a gut or slapstick level. That is an art that is more hit-and-miss on Colbert and Stewart, in my opinion, than most pundits are reporting.
For more on O’Brien’s return including details about his new show, here’s a link to the article I wrote last week for The Canadian Press. I’ve missed him and look forward to more banter from sidekick Andy Richter.
One other thing: CTV didn’t exactly choose Stewart over O’Brien in determining tonight’s 11 p.m. Comedy Network slot. They originally bumped Stewart and Colbert ahead an hour to 10 p.m., as confused and frustrated viewers can attest over the past month. That was to eventually make room for O’Brien at 11 so his show could be simulcast with the TBS feed.
The problem was, Colbert’s show delivers so close to air time that CTV could not count on consistently getting it in time to pre-release in Canada at 10:30. On at least three occasions, a Colbert rerun played in Canada to cover for a late delivery.
Faced with this logistical headache, CTV bumped Stewart, Colbert and Conan back to 11 p.m., 11:30 and midnight on Comedy (and midnight, 12:30 a.m. and 1 a.m. on CTV). They tried, and wanted, to put O’Brien first, but for now he’s their midnight man. It’s a berth O’Brien can’t be too pleased about given that he rejected it at NBC. Time will tell how it will all play out.

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