The Late Night Rundown – Conan O’Brien

Back in the 70’s, there was only Johnny Carson.  But since the retirement of the undisputed King of Late Night in 1992, there has been a plethora of new shows pop up, each with the same basic formula, but unique in their own way. After reading Bill Carter’s The War For Late Night, I have become addicted to late-night television all over again.  So I am starting a new series of posts dedicated to the many hosts out there currently making us laugh after prime time, analyzing one at a time.

The same night Jay Leno had his fifth anniversary special, whatever night that was, sometime in 1997 or 1998 I think, I stayed up and watched Late Night with Conan O’Brien for the first time.  I don’t know why I was watching late night TV, I imagine being bored had a lot to do with it.  Needless to say, even at age 11, I found Conan immensely funnier/smarter than Jay, and I became a member of Team Coco long before the term existed.

For the rest of these posts, with the exception of Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert, I am going to have to do some research i.e. I am going to make myself sit through a week of late night shows I otherwise would never watch.  Leno is one of them, as is Carson Daly, Chelsea Handler, and Conan’s current follow-up, George Lopez.  But I am already an avid Conan watcher and have been for many years, before his move to the Tonight Show, the shakeup resulting from that move, and his transfer to TBS.

Over the years, Conan’s entire show has made a gradual transformation from shy funnyman telling jokes and gags behind a desk to a bearded lanky veteran interacting with his audience and being sharper in his improvisation.  Of course, mainly because of his stature and appearance, the physical comedy has always been there, something you either love or hate.  His trademark “string dance” has become synonymous with the image of Conan, as has the red pompadour on his head and now, that shaggy beard he grew and kept after being fired from NBC.

Conan has a writing background, so the rehearsed bits are his strong suit, while the ad-lib banter with hit-or-miss sidekick Andy Richter (who has lost his luster since departing from Late Night and then returning for the Tonight Show) is usually spotty.  The interviews are often pretty awkward, he is not as comfortable with his guests as other hosts on the tube, such as Ferguson and Fallon, who are more conversational.

On Late Night, Conan was fresh and in his element, delivering a very weird brand of humor to a dedicated fan base, who has never really left.  His Tonight Show, admittedly, was fairly unwatchable, minus the final two weeks, where he not-so-subtly gave NBC the finger on their own network.  Conan’s transformation to 11:35 changed his brand of comedy, and he is not as sharp as we was a few years ago.  Still, with creative control of his show and no network execs telling him to “broaden” his show for a wider audience (now he is on cable performing for his true fans every night), Conan is free to roam, and roam he does.  He and executive producer Jeff Ross have found new ways to deliver comedy with a limited budget; Conan spends more time poking fun at his studio audience and breaking the fourth wall in rehearsed sketches.

Also, Conan’s reach spreads to the Web, where his production company is in full charge of the content of his show, and Conan is in command of his Twitter account.  O’Brien, who continues to be a top player in the key demographic for TV (ages 18-49), continues even on cable to be a worthy 21st century late night competitor with a very passionate following, and he shows no signs of stopping.

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