Welcome Back, Conan

Conan returned to TV last night, finally, with the premiere of his new TBS talk show, Conan. It was refreshing, really. After months of Conan touring, Conan tweeting, and Conan making web videos, he’s back to what he really does best: hosting a talk show.

Conan dedicated his cold open (above) and most of his monologue to jokes about the saga he’s been through since The Tonight Show debacle. And while my feeling going into the show was that I wanted him to move past this stuff quickly and get to jokes about something other than himself, it felt natural and cathartic to address the things that were on everyone’s mind in such a funny way. You’ve gotta assume that he’ll move past joking about it soon, but I think it’s fair that he took the situation on head-on in his first episode back.

The show was at its best up top, where it felt loose and unpredictable, something that was missing from Conan’s truncated stint on The Tonight Show. It felt like a return to form, and it was a great reminder of why people liked this guy so much in the first place. Yes, everyone loves an underdog and Leno is a great nemesis to root against, but this guy really commands the stage and feels completely natural up there. And his rapport with Andy, back on the couch with him again, is great. The two of them donning supremely creepy “Ex Talk Show Host” masks was one of the highlights of the show.

It was only when the guests showed up that things felt a little off. Maybe that’s because it felt like a step backwards, having to reign in the energy and weirdness for pretty standard-issue interviews with celebrities. Obviously Conan isn’t the sort of show that’s going to feature semi-serious interviews with non-Hollywood types, as the shows competition over on Comedy Central has popularized, but having to talk to someone like Lea Michelle just sucked a lot of the energy out of the room. It was no fault of Conan’s, and I suppose it comes with the territory, but it was a reminder of why a lot of people start flipping channels once the desk bits are over. Seeing as they had the opportunity to do whatever they want with this show, it’s a little disappointing to see them loading the back half with such standard-issue fare.

But overall, the premiere was an excellent start to the new show. It should only get better as Conan and his writers get into the groove of things, moving past talking about their situation and back to making jokes about what’s going on in the world around them, creating new characters and doing new bits.

It almost feels like an embarrassment of riches at late night these days, with more good comedy than you could reasonably watch airing every night. People have a tough choice as to what to watch at 11pm now, with Jon Stewart and Conan facing off directly just a few channels apart. And it’ll certainly be interesting to see how Conan affects the ratings of the network talk shows and Comedy Central late night shows alike. But really, all that stuff aside, it’s just great to have Conan back on TV, where he belongs.

Welcome Back, Conan