If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That seems to be the guiding philosophy behind Conan, the new Conan O’Brien talk show that debuted last night on TBS. When Jay Leno snatched The Tonight Show back from O’Brien earlier this year, only a few months after passing it on to him, millions of Conan fans from around the country rallied to his defense. They made posters, staged protests, and took over the internet, all in the name of Team Coco. So why should Conan be anything different than the beloved comedian doing what he does best — namely, the same thing he did for years on NBC?
Aside from the opening dramatization of O’Brien’s split with his former network — an epic in which Conan is gunned down twice, works at Burger King, takes a gig as a kids’ party clown, interviews for a job with Don Draper, and allows Larry King (the patron saint of basic cable) to talk him down from the ledge — what we got last night was pretty standard Conan O’Brien fare. And as fans, we’re certainly not complaining. What struck us, though, was the extent to which the Team Coco hype has made Conan the true focus of his new show.
It was obvious that O’Brien would pack his monologue with NBC-related zingers, and he certainly delivered: “Welcome to my second annual first show,” was the opening. “People asked me why I named the show Conan. I did it so I’d be harder to replace,” he continued. Then, he twisted the knife: “It’s not easy doing a late-night show on a channel without a lot of money on a channel that viewers have a lot of trouble finding. So that’s why I left NBC.” Soon after, in a skit, O’Brien addressed the confusion over whether he’d be allowed to use characters from his old show on TBS by placing the infamous Masturbating Bear in an NBC lotto drawing telecast. For the desk portion of his monologue, Conan brought out a rubber Halloween novelty that vaguely resembled him, which had (for legal reasons) been named the “Ex-Talk Show Host” mask.
Sure, there were guests. But it was Conan and his goofy sense of humor — which has made him such a hit on the internet, and namely Twitter — that were really on display when he brought out the winner of his first guest content: the elderly curator of a nutcracker museum. The real guests, Seth Rogen and Lea Michele, were jovial and funny enough, but their appearances were far from the highlights — except for the moment when O’Brien inserted a hilariously awkward cutout of himself in high school into Terry Richardson’s naughty GQ photo of Michele. (Side note: Did Michele really refer to Richardson as an “icon”? Seriously?)
The most anticipated guest of the night was Jack White — but he didn’t perform alone. The White Stripes leader took the stage with Conan (whose guitar strap actually had his name on it), and the pair covered Eddie Cochran’s “20 Flight Rock,” with O’Brien totally hamming it up (and White, with his new hairdo and facial landscaping, resembling a sort of Satanic elf). Later, in the interview, the longtime friends discussed their collaborations, including an O’Brien spoken-word album that features perhaps the creepiest Conan photo of all time.
It’s welcome news that Conan is back on the air, and we’re sure the show won’t continue to be all Conan, all the time. Still, what’s clear now, in a way that never was before the NBC debacle and the rise of Team Coco, is that O’Brien really is a star — and that people are watching him not because he has great guests, but because they love him. Finally, some celebrity worship we can get behind.