TV review: Conan debuts on TBS after departing NBC

By Marisha Pietrowski

In preparation for Conan O’Brien’s return to television, TBS, the network hosting his new show, made sure that everyone in the country knew he was back. It was impossible to watch TV, read a magazine or look in the sky without seeing O’Brien and his ginger crop of hair (seriously; TBS had a bright orange blimp with the “Conan” logo on it flying around the country).

Members of “Team Coco” eagerly anticipated O’Brien’s return to television with his new show, simply titled “Conan,” after his infamous departure from NBC in January after attempting to reward Jay Leno’s failing show. So far, O’Brien and his team have worked to make “Conan” a fun experience for O’Brien and his fans.

Some critics have chided “Conan” for being too much of a traditional talk show and that O’Brien did little to shock the audience. His humor is irreverent, not controversial, and based on O’Brien’s adoration for classic talk show hosts such as Johnny Carson, it’s unlikely he would want to stray from that format.

It’s clear that even though O’Brien recognizes his audience and works to make “Conan” friendly to the youth demographic, he still wishes to maintain the basics of past and present late night shows. However, it’s when he can break from those traditional restraints that he can shine.

Even though the show follows the typical monologue-guests format, that doesn’t mean “Conan” isn’t funny. O’Brien thrives when he has fantastic guests, as with Tuesday’s show. His conversation with Tom Hanks was hilarious and entertaining. Hanks, always up for good physical comedy, ended up being drenched with water after a whale breached in the “ocean” of the set backdrop.

Hanks also helped to dish out some great barbs against O’Brien, especially in regard to what some claim is his harping over the NBC controversy. When O’Brien blamed Hanks for popularizing the “Coco” nickname, Hanks quickly retorted how nice it was for him to be blaming something on someone other than NBC.

Comparatively, similar interviews with “30 Rock” star Jack McBrayer and comedian Charlyne Yi (“Knocked Up”) were effortless and entertaining, while chats with first-night guests Seth Rogen and “Glee” star Lea Michele seemed more forced.

As with his previous shows, O’Brien’s weaknesses are in his monologue; it’s clear he is not the type of comedian to deliver jokes straight-faced from a script. He thrives on more outrageous segments and characters (such as the Masturbating Bear, who, regardless of NBC still owning him as intellectual property, appeared Monday).

The show more than makes up for the monologue with remote pieces where O’Brien can shine. Tuesday’s segment with the head of TBS’ Standards and Practices department on what he can and cannot say on cable brought forth the ridiculousness that O’Brien fans have grown to love.

“Conan” has also made good use of announcer Andy Richter. Instead of simply acting as the announcer (as he did during O’Brien’s stint on “the Tonight Show”), Richter appears to have taken on the role of O’Brien’s sidekick again, as he did on “Late Night” from 1993-2000. He regularly steals the show with great comebacks and one-liners that leave O’Brien trying to keep up.

Whenever O’Brien can break from character and have an improvised moment with Richter, a guest or the studio audience, it’s an opportunity for fans to see why O’Brien is beloved among comedy fans. His self-deprecation seems to be on full display on “Conan,” and he seems more comfortable and happy with this job than he did at “the Tonight Show.”

During his final few shows on NBC, O’Brien told the audience his goal for those shows was simply to “have fun on television,” and the show adopted a go-for-broke attitude where O’Brien and his staff delivered some of their finest shows in their 17-year history with the network. It seems like O’Brien has adopted much of this attitude on “Conan,” and it is what will help him maintain popularity in an age where television is saturated with talk shows.

O’Brien having fun was best displayed during Monday’s musical performance when he sang and played guitar with Jack White on a cover of rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” Performances like that were highlights of O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,” earlier this year and hopefully they’ll become regular occurrences on “Conan.”

“Conan” is self-titled for a reason; it’s O’Brien’s chance to be himself, and while there are a few kinks to be smoothed out, “Conan” still delivered a fine first week of shows that will likely only get better.

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