this week in late night

Conan O’Brien’s New Show Gives Him the Freedom to Be Fun Again

Conan O’Brien on the new Conan. Photo: TBS

“It’s nicer without the desk,” Conan O’Brien told Jeff Goldblum Monday night. “I used to really feel like I was doing people’s taxes for them.” When Goldblum countered that the desk was a late-night tradition, O’Brien interrupted him to say, “But I did that for 25 years.”

That’s what’s so great about the new streamlined Conan. Nu-Conan, if you will. He is doing what he feels like doing, and nothing else. Last year, O’Brien announced that his show was going on hiatus, and that when it returned it would only be half an hour. Half an hour means only one guest per night, and no musical guest. There’s no band, he doesn’t wear a suit, and there’s no desk. When Conan went on The Late Show this week, Stephen Colbert called him the “elder statesman of late night.” But he’s not a statesman, he’s an old crank. He’s the Lemmy Kilmister of late night: wearing leather jackets and talking mad shit. Lemmy hung out in the Rainbow Bar & Grill for two decades of his life because that’s where he always went. O’Brien is doing the same to the WB lot. Late night is his place, because he’s comfortable there. But he’s too old to put up with bullshit.

The thing that made me saddest about old Conan was the perfunctory nipple play. Every night, the band would play O’Brien on and he’d cap it off with rubbing his nips. Sometimes he’d invite an audience member to give them a tweak. And if it was a man, eight times out of ten they’d pinch really hard and O’Brien would complain. Every night, O’Brien would perform this nipple ritual (niptual?) with the cold dead eyes of Emma Stone massaging the queen’s legs in The Favourite. I would hide my head behind a pillow for what felt like hours every night, waiting for it to be over.

Now that the show is shorter (and bandless), O’Brien doesn’t have time to joylessly fondle himself forever — 20 seconds tops, sometimes no time at all! But that doesn’t mean the show feels cramped. On the contrary, because so much extraneous business has been cleared from the docket, what’s left has a lot of time to breathe. A sketch can use as many ghillie-suited actors as you could ever want.

That seems to be the modus operandi on nu-Conan. Everything gets a chance to rake joke — to go on for so long that they stop being funny, then carry on for one more beat that makes everything hilarious again. Former Conan writer Scott Gairdner said on his podcast that the highest praise a sketch could get from O’Brien was “What a waste of everyone’s time!” These protracted bits are what make him the happiest, and it shows. He starts his State of the Union monologue, but he gets derailed riffing with Andy Richter, making Pornhub and cockney gonorrhea jokes.

Was there a pre-written punch line hidden away in there? Unclear. Either way, O’Brien is having fun, and I’m having fun with him. I have to watch all of late-night television, every week. It used to be something of a chore to check in with Conan. It felt like a visit with a family member who you don’t like, and they don’t like you, but everyone is there out of obligation. Now the show feels like drinking with Lemmy. Rather than make a tourist grab O’Brien’s nipples, Jean-Claude Van Damme is offering to feel and improve his ass. Van Damme couldn’t get a handful with a desk in the way. When you pare away the bullshit, you leave room for magic.

Conan O’Brien’s New Show Gives Him Freedom to Be Fun Again