Since sometime circa the late '90s, Conan O'Brien has been the best of the late-night talk-show hosts. While Jay Leno did jokes so tame they would've felt just as at-home coming from a purple cartoon dog in the middle of the afternoon, Conan's formula continued to feel fresh and relevant -- so fresh and relevant, in fact, thatThe Tonight Show
provided too tight a box; even without the fiasco that resulted, the two were never a very good fit. Whatever TBS will do for him, it's certain he'll get more freedom -- whether or not he'll use it remains to be seen.
Except for the beard and a mildly different set, the premiere of Conan (which O'Brien cracked that he named thus because it would make it harder to replace him) could've been Late Night two years ago. All of the familiar characters were there: The show opened with a goofy video, Andy Richter played sidekick, and there was even an appearance from Masturbating Bear. The only real difference was that almost all of Conan's material was dedicated to the highly public fiasco of his career over the last year. Here's his monologue (word of warning: You have to sit through a commercial first):
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Of course, after the highly public weirdness and the contract and a ten-month hiatus, the situation merits serious joke mileage; it would've been weird if almost the entire show hadn't been dedicated to it. But the jokes do bring up some salient points. Even before The Tonight Show, people liked O'Brien. Following Leno's desperate grab for the old torch, Conan's getting the shaft in a serious and obvious way and NBC's comically ridiculous mishandling of the whole thing, the outpouring of public sympathy has made O'Brien -- at least for now -- one of the most beloved personalities in TV.
Then again, as O'Brien did not fail to point out, he's on basic cable -- and not just basic cable, but a pretty low-profile channel on basic cable. There's not only the question of whether or not people will care enough to tune in; there's also the fact that a late-night talk show is just kind of a weird format for basic cable.
For the networks, the late-night talk show serves a function: a fairly low-budget, low-attention-span snack of a program to serve up to people as they zone out before bed. To put that same show on cable is to expect people, to some extent, to go out of their way to find the same thing. And if people are going to do that, O'Brien is going to have to make it worth their while. And he'll probably have to push the envelope a little harder than he did on NBC -- or, for that matter, than he did last night -- to get their attention.
Either way, it's good to see him back in the game.