late night

What We Learned From the First Episode of Conan

It may be folly to assume too much from the first few weeks of any Conan O’Brien show: His initial tenure at Late Night was famously derided, but the show grew into a critical darling, while his version of the Tonight Show was supposed to usher in a new generation of late-night but didn’t even last a year. With that said, though, there were still five things we learned from last night’s TBS premiere of Conan that we expect will remain as steady and reliable as O’Brien’s implacable ginger bouffant. What has changed, and what will stay exactly the same?

Conan will keep mining his network exile for laughs
O’Brien’s entire monologue was filled with spiky jokes about NBC, TBS, and his unlikely journey to basic cable, and it was all the better for it. Pundits often say that monologues aren’t O’Brien’s strong suit, but when the Late Night Wars went down, the jokes were sharp and riveting; reprising that material last night allowed him to get all the obvious jokes out of the way up front, but also reminded viewers that O’Brien is best when he’s unleashed. How much will he continue to reference the Tonight Show debacle in the future? We hope he takes a cue from Martha Stewart, who isn’t afraid to make a naughty reference on her own show to her notorious prison stint, but manages to do it with delicious infrequency.

There will be no curse words
Conan may air on TBS late at night, but each time Seth Rogen said shit (a curse word that’s become increasingly common on basic cable late at night), it got bleeped. O’Brien even admonished him: “We get it, it’s cable. You can swear. You don’t need to abuse it.”

He’s keeping the beard
O’Brien first inaugurated the late-night beard during the 2008 writers’ strike, but his facial follicles made a comeback during his post–Tonight Show off-season, and he remained unshaven during last night’s premiere. Will he keep the beard throughout his TBS run? He’s a 47-year-old man with a miraculous lack of gray hair, so why shouldn’t he work with that for a little while? (Next year, they’ll have to update the below “ex–late night host” Halloween mask accordingly.)

Conan’s still best when he’s at his weirdest
The return of the Masturbating Bear felt like the show’s clearest signal that we’re dealing with Late Night Conan — the looser, “why not” brand of talk-show host — and not Tonight Show Conan, whose sense of humor was sometimes hamstrung by the gig’s more mainstream sensibilities. Last night’s premiere was probably too packed to allow an actual sit-down interview with the curator of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum (billed as the official “first guest,” she was onstage for about ten seconds), but more’s the pity, because it would have been the kind of off-the-wall idea this crew tends to do best.

Conan isn’t going to be that different
O’Brien will never be given a better chance to blow up the musty formula of late-night, but in his premiere, he didn’t even tweak it. Taped segments, interviews, and musical guests arrived exactly when you expected them to and looked no different than they did during O’Brien’s tenure on NBC; in fact, the only atypical thing about the show was where and when it was airing. Will that be enough for Conan to cut through the competitive clutter? The late-night hosts who’ve succeeded in basic cable are the ones who’ve toyed with the format, from Jon Stewart to Chelsea Handler, and O’Brien is apparently disinterested in going down that path. Will his third time hosting a talk show be the charm? It may not be revolutionary, but what’s wrong with being charming?

What We Learned From the First Episode of Conan