So, what have we to talk about this week? The non-news that after scoring ridiculously high ratings, AMC has greenlit a second season of The Walking Dead? How about the box office for Dreamworks’ latest animated film Megamind? What of the Bruce Springsteen set The Promise, which documents the making of Darkness On The Edge Of Town? While all these are worthy topics, perhaps none is being so closely watched or hotly anticipated as the return of Conan O’Brien to late night television, premiering his TBS show in head-to-head competition with his former NBC dorm-mate Jay Leno.
Between O’Brien’s headline-grabbing departure from NBC and his new show, he’s fostered a wildly popular Twitter feed, (Don’t knock it – if CBS likes it, they might give you a sitcom deal too), an unprecedented multi-city tour of live performances, recorded a live album at Jack White’s Third Man Records, and all with little to no financial backing in advertising. It is a rare exception where controversy was harnessed to make several enterprises run at once, mostly on the power of word of mouth.
It doesn’t seem so long ago, and credit O’Brien for not laying low and allowing people to forget him, after the Tonight Show fracas. Several things have changed on the landscape aside from Leno’s return to 11:30 PM, including his sagging ratings that can no longer be attributed solely to O’Brien’s peculiar comic sensibilities, a neck-and-neck ratings horserace with David Letterman on CBS for second place while, seemingly from nowhere, ABC’s resurgent Nightline program slips in-between the slapfighting for the win. Specifically for Conan, bandleader and comic foil Max Weinberg has stepped out of the spotlight, leaving the space to Jimmy Vivino and the renamed Basic Cable Band. Weinberg revealed that for the last few years he has been dealing with a heart condition, and that now was simply the right time to make the break.
Just as much as things may change, some stay the same. Vivino was the de facto understudy for Weinberg whenever he took his leave for Springsteen’s E Street Band, and this new band is mostly comprised of the former Max Weinberg Seven, so there is a lot more continuity than the new moniker might indicate. Also back on board is Andy Richter, original sidekick on Conan’s Late Night stint, returning announcer for the Tonight Show hiccup. One other, and probably more important, return is the unhinged sensibility O’Brien had to curb for the honored Tonight Show position. This was in many circles one of the biggest drawbacks from his stint there – that bizarre characters like Pimpbot 5000, long-running gags like Conan and Andy’s Staring Contest, and even a lot of the random nature of O’Brien’s schtick had to be streamlined. It was a bone of contention that people followed him for his insanity, and that’s what would have landed him the Big Kahuna prize of the Tonight Show, but all that would have to be buffed down to maintain the current demographic (read as older, less inclined for such behavior) for that hour.
It’s safe to assume the gloves are now off. An indicator of such would be O’Brien’s assertions that the Masturbating Bear would return to the broadcast, even if it clashes with NBC’s claim for intellectual property rights for all aspects of Late Night and Tonight Show bits. O’Brien half-jokingly claimed the risk was worth it just to have a judge presiding, out loud, over a case regarding the custody rights for a Masturbating Bear. This risk is one of many signs of life in the ol’ Red Haired Machine. Even though TBS is basic cable, there are things such a medium can get away with that standard broadcast still cannot, no matter how late at night the show might be. One must be prepared for just about anything.
But before we start crowning O’Brien the new King of Late Night, there are some things to consider. The first is that, without boundaries, sometimes good comedy goes bad. An example: Ren and Stimpy on Nickelodeon, good comedy – Sick and twisted, but needing to conform to taste criteria supervised by the kids’ network. Ren and Stimpy on Spike TV, bad comedy – Sick and twisted and gone much too far. It will be imperative that the Conan writing staff recognize their newfound freedoms, but are strong enough to resist exercising them imprudently.
The second consideration is that expectations are way too high for the show. People are hyping the premiere with all the dangerous adjectives that have sunk many a project before. Reason insists upon a reminder that, in spite of CocoMania, it’s still a late night talk show. Exploding bras and panties may be on a future episode, but don’t be disappointed if they don’t arrive tonight, or tomorrow night, or next week.
The third thing to consider is that O’Brien goes up against a man that co-chaired a Washington rally, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. Sure, the rally was a satire of self-serving rallies and rampant punditry, but the audience turnout was anything but. It’s easy to imagine a Stewart viewer being sympatico with O’Brien’s sensibilities, but which one gets the DVR and which one gets the ratings point? Until that wrinkle gets sorted out, it’s possible that Conan will have truly met his match, in more ways than one.
So here ends one chapter of the late night wars and begins one anew. We’ll scan the details tomorrow and see how it all went down. We’d also like your opinion on the show, so just let us know in the comments: Like it, loathe it, ignore it? However it turns up, it’s a safe bet that we’ll still be awash in Coco for many years to come.