Until last night, Conan O’Brien had masterfully cultivated a massive Internet audience by doing almost nothing. Sure, he threw his online audience a few breadcrumbs with an occasionally updated Twitter account and semi-weekly YouTube videos, but really, O’Brien won a devoted, plugged-in cadre simply by being the underdog and antithesis to Jay Leno, a stodgy steward of dated comedy and embarrassingly overt product placement. So how did O’Brien reward his online fans with last night’s “Show Zero,” touted as a full warm-up show that would stream for fans on YouTube, TeamCoco.com, and Facebook? With … dated comedy and embarrassingly overt product placement. Uh-oh.
Instead of delivering the whole hour implied by his press releases, O’Brien recorded a gag show that ran under five minutes, with a musty monologue joke about summer cause celebre Carter Semenya and exceedingly brief cameos from guest Jim Parsons and the band Steel Train (the latter of which only got a single chord out). In fact, most of the time was taken up promoting sponsor Diet Coke, with testimonials from sidekick Andy Richter and a show-closing, 30-second spot devoted to the drink.
Online reaction was not swell. “Coco, I love you, but tricking your fans into watching a Coke commercial was bullshit,” said commenter BigTimStrange on YouTube. Though O’Brien justified his talk-showlet with the remark, “Things on the Internet have to be fast,” was he unaware that many of his fans were used to watching hour-long installments of his old shows on Hulu, or that they might torrent full episodes of the Parsons sitcom The Big Bang Theory? If anything, “Show Zero” felt like the most old-fashioned move O’Brien’s made in some time, so retro that it recalled two NBC shows on his résumé: Saturday Night Live, in that it was a single joke ill-advisedly prolonged, and 30 Rock, which confronted its product placement head-on when Tina Fey turned to the camera and said, “Can we have our money now?”
Were O’Brien as current as the audience he’s courting, perhaps he would have learned something from The Social Network, where even audiences hostile to Mark Zuckerberg nodded in agreement when the prickly Facebook founder resisted the overt commercialization of his newly hip invention. “It’s cool now,” said the reluctant Zuckerberg, adding, “And if it’s filled with pop-ups for Mountain Dew, it won’t be.” At some point, Conan’s cool was bound to give way to the reality of putting out a daily late-night TBS show (and one that would lead in to a George Lopez series, for that matter). Still, did it have to happen in under five minutes before he’s really even begun?