Coco in exile: On Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, The War For Late Night, and a week in the TBS hinterland

Coco in exile: On Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, The War For Late Night, and a week in the TBS hinterland

“It assumes you’re going to stay with the game, even in its dreariest, dusty middle innings, when the handful of folks in the stands are slumped down on their spines waiting for something to happen, even a base on balls.” —The New Yorker’s Roger Angell, in praise of Bull Durham

Buried in his great 1989 piece on sports movies, “No, But I Saw The Game,” the Roger Angell quote above—specifically the phrase “dusty middle innings”—is one I think about often, not least because it perfectly evokes why Bull Durham is the greatest sports movie ever made. I often think about those famous or once-famous athletes or celebrities who are living their lives between the highlight clips and the short, fickle swells of public attention. How do they go about their business? What happens on those long mid-season home stands in AAA, when even something wonderful—like, say, Crash Davis breaking the minor-league home-run record in Bull Durham—goes completely unacknowledged? 

All of which is to say I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Conan O’Brien lately—first by seeing the disappointing (yet revealing) new documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, then reading Bill Carter’s terrific book The War For Late Night, and now sampling a random week of Conan, his eight-month-old show in the arid hinterland of basic cable. It occurred to me that the role of talk-show host is the one show-business profession that’s truly analogous to baseball, because the accumulation of shows/games in a season is so large that the stakes for each individual show/game are vastly diminished. We’ve seen from Carter’s books—The War For Late Night and his previous The Late Shift, about the Jay Leno/David Letterman feud—that it’s trench warfare behind the scenes, with hosts, producers, and bookers fighting for every last fraction of a ratings point. But the reality of the late-night talk show is that it’s almost all “dusty middle innings”: Aside from a few pop-cultural events here and there—like Hugh Grant’s tide-turning 1995 interview on Leno’s The Tonight Show or Letterman’s astonishing reveal of his affairs with female staff members on The Late Show—the hosts and their staff have to turn out episode after episode, night after night, to a nation collectively slumped down on their spines. Even the thunderous applause of the studio audience—and the obligatory “Oh pleases” and comical fake-pandering that follows—has to feel more canned than genuinely gratifying over the course of decades and thousands of shows. 

Let’s start with the documentary first: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop struck me as a sloppy, listless behind-the-scenes profile that failed to take notice—or perhaps, coming from Team Coco, refused to take notice—of the enormous disparity between the Conan it’s promoting and the far more troubled Conan that it’s actually documenting. Shot during the months between Conan’s dramatic Tonight Show exit and his surprising reemergence on TBS, the film follows him on his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television” tour, a 33-city, two-month odyssey that shrewdly seized on the “Team Coco” movement while giving Conan an opportunity to play directly to his supporters and keep performing during the hiatus between shows. That need to perform—and generally be the biggest cutup in the room, even at the industry parties he clearly dreads—inspired the title Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, and the film, to its credit, doesn’t entirely miss the dark side of that impulse. 

In truth, the (mostly accidental) tone of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is curdled and sour, and troubled by contradiction. Conan talks about being “the least entitled person you’ll ever meet,” but his feelings of aggrievement over the Tonight Show debacle saturate nearly every scene in the documentary. Though his outrage and upset is completely understandable and righteous—he had his dream job taken away from him in seven months and didn’t deserve it, no matter what NBC stooges like Jerry Seinfeld and Dick Ebersol think—“humility” is not the first descriptive that springs to mind. But the real cognitive dissonance of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is hearing Conan talk about the tour as a career highlight while witnessing his utter misery behind the scenes. His generosity as a performer and human being is part of what makes Conan so beloved by fans, but his acquiescence to sign every autograph, appear in every picture, glad-hand at every industry party, and meet every celebrity well-wisher backstage looks like absolute misery. His appearance at Bonnaroo, where he’s jammed into a stuffy trailer and asked last-minute to improvise funny introductions to all the major acts, is just the most taxing of many soul-sucking obligations. It’s not merely that Conan O’Brien can’t stop; it’s that he’s not allowed to stop, even on his days off. 

All the attributes on display in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop—the ceaseless drive to perform, the ability to connect broadly with audiences and improvise on the fly, and, yes, the need for constant gratification—underlines a point made in Carter’s The War For Late Night: Very few people can do what Conan does. Greater and lesser lights have tried and failed, from Magic Johnson to Pat Sajak to Chevy Chase, but only a handful can capably manage the various moving parts that go into the show—the monologue, the interviews, the remote segments and bits of sketch-comedy business—and get it done every night, in a marathon run with a finish line that keeps receding into the horizon. It takes a special kind of versatility and brilliance to pull it off (and I wouldn’t exclude Leno from that, however determinedly mediocre his show), and Conan, after a famously rough start, has logged the thousands upon thousands of hours to prove it. He’s a comic entertainer with very specific qualities: He’s not a stand-up, but he can get through monologues. He’s not an actor, but he can goof his way around desk and sketch bits. He’s a talk show host, a rare fusion of diverse attributes. 

The War For Late Night documents the many gears at work in Conan’s downfall at NBC, revealing him more as the victim of a complicated set of circumstances than an authentic failure as Leno’s successor on The Tonight Show. The original sin of having Leno sign over stewardship of The Tonight Show in his final, five-year contract—despite consistently spanking Letterman in the ratings—set into motion a series of events: the inevitable-even-at-the-time failure of The Jay Leno Show to light up prime time; the unusual “pay-and-play” contract that forced NBC to keep the Leno show on the air for two years; the equally unusual lack of time-slot protection that allowed NBC to bump Conan’s Tonight Show back to 12:05 a.m., et al. Those events ultimately claimed Conan, who didn’t have the ratings to beat back the wolves. 

It should go without saying—but I’ll say it anyway—that rendering a final judgment on Conan’s Tonight Show based on seven months’ worth of ratings is absurdly shortsighted. After all, Leno himself took a notoriously rough year and a half as Johnny Carson’s successor before he finally muscled ahead of Letterman. Assuming Leno’s audience would embrace Conan simply because it’s The Tonight Show was never a good bet; Conan would have to build his own, much more demographically appealing audience over the stretch of years, not months. Whether or not you feel he ever had the broad appeal to do it is debatable, but what’s less debatable is the fact that he wasn’t given enough of an opportunity to try. Detractors at the network had a tendency to label Conan a “niche” talent, but in a late-night landscape that keeps multiplying across networks major and minor, it seems possible that Conan’s “niche” may well have ended up totaling the largest audience. Barring another game of late-night musical chairs, we may never know for sure. 

After reading The War For Late Night, I’d argue that the real tragedy of Conan’s Tonight Show debacle is that The Tonight Show was a greatly diminished prize before he ever got there. Carter writes about Conan’s worship of Carson from childhood, and his unwavering loyalty to NBC in the face of better offers, just because he wanted a chance to lead that storied late-night franchise into the next century. Part of its tarnished legacy can be laid at Leno’s feet: Over his 17 years, The Tonight Show became such a paragon of mass-targeted mediocrity that any infusion of fresh talent would be akin to dressing a Big Mac in foie gras, an assault on dulled taste buds. The other, more important part of it is that The Tonight Show no longer has the singularity it enjoyed with Carson at the helm. Carter’s book does a wonderful job showing all the pieces in the current late-night puzzle: Leno, Conan, and Letterman, of course, but also Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. All command their own piece of the increasingly fractured late-night audience, and all have contributed innovations that have rendered the entire Tonight Show model old-fashioned, if not approaching obsolescence. 

When Conan finally returned to television with his eponymously named show on TBS, many critics were disappointed that he failed to follow the narrative they had constructed for him. The narrative was this: Conan, with his off-the-wall sensibility, was never a good fit for NBC at 11:30, and his modest attempts to broaden his act for a more mainstream audience failed both to connect with the Leno crowd and satisfy the hardcore, Masturbating Bear-loving Conanites. By moving to TBS, where rating expectations would be significantly lower, Conan would be able to reinvent the format and let his proverbial freak flag fly. Instead, that first week of Conan looked an awful lot like a late-night talk show. To me, the notion that a new Conan show would be fundamentally different from past Conan shows was completely misguided: Expecting him to be inventive within the format is reasonable; expecting him to radically alter it would be entirely out of character. 

Of course, the true test of Conan’s creative success would be how it performed during those “dusty middle innings,” when the splashy first few weeks were over and the show had settled into more average nights, where the biggest available guest is the third lead in some disposable Hollywood comedy. I had the idea of secretly contacting my favorite TV critics and bloggers and see if all of us could agree to write about the same random week of Conan episodes, just to see how he does when nobody in the media is paying much attention. I still like the idea, but with the Conan documentary and Carter’s book still fresh on my mind, I decided to go ahead and do it myself by sampling a week’s worth of episodes from Monday, June 27 to Thursday, June 30. 

[pagebreak]

My conclusion? Conan O’Brien is an exceptionally good talk show host. 

Before I elaborate, a caveat: I do not approach this week of Conan as a regular viewer of that or any other talk show, so I can’t talk about how the show has evolved over the weeks and months it’s been on the air. In the epilogue to The War For Late Night, industry types fretted over the DVR and the proliferation of viewers like myself, who have gotten out of the habit of watching late-night shows, choosing instead to wait for buzzed-about clips to surface on the Internet. I don’t want to extrapolate from my own experience too much, but clearly the ability to watch segments a la carte, combined with the wealth of talented hosts on after hours, has fractured audiences, perhaps permanently. I hope diehard Conan fans will challenge my admitted philistinism and give us a more widely informed perspective on the show in the comments. 

Rather than break down the show night by night, I’ve decided to do it piece by piece instead. But first, here were the bookings for June 27 through June 30: 

Monday: Jason Sudeikis, DJ Qualls, & Ke$ha
Tuesday: Elijah Wood, Leslie Bibb, & Gillian Welch
Wednesday: Liv Tyler, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, & Jon Dore
Thursday: Tom Hanks & BBQ Master Myron Mixon

The monologues: As Carter notes in The War For Late Night, the monologue was (and is) the centerpiece of Leno’s act, and no one could come close to the fusillade of jokes—around 30 a night—that he turned out every evening. (In the period when Letterman was going head-to-head with Conan, he quietly filled the void by building out his monologue, in a shrewd attempt to snag Leno loyalists fleeing from Conan’s Tonight Show.) Yet creatively speaking, the topical monologue is dead, and this time, it’s not Leno standing over the corpse but Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who have made a nightly sport out of picking apart the follies of politicians and cable news bloviators. Why tune into the ideologically neutral one-liners of traditional talk show hosts, with their “those-clowns-in-Washington-are-at-it-again” tone, when Stewart and Colbert are finding much sharper comic angles, and other hosts like Craig Ferguson are improvising their way around the news? And what does the zombie monologue mean for Conan, who’s not a stand-up by nature and never had much of a stomach for political commentary anyway? 

For the most part, Conan turns his obvious liabilities into an asset, mainly by monkeying around in the margins. This week, having fallen between Anthony Weiner and Casey Anthony, the topics at play were: Gay marriage in New York and Pat Robertson’s subsequent warning that a vengeful God would “destroy America,” Michele Bachmann confusing John Wayne for John Wayne Gacy, and the capture of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, among other smaller bits here and there. The one-liners themselves were largely hit-or-miss, as canned gags on late night tend to be, but Conan’s gift for squeezing laughs out of dead jokes is still formidable. When a lame joke comparing Rod Blagojevich’s coiffure to his own tanks, Conan squats down nearly below camera level, demonstrating how his shark-fin hair terrifies lifeguards. Conan revives another whiff of a gag about North Koreans making students work in factories (“Spring Break”) by miming his idea of manual labor, which to him “means churning a big crank.” So much attention is paid, rightly, to Conan’s gifts as a writer and improviser that you forget how well he can sell jokes with physical bits of business beyond his signature “string dance.”  

The segment is as much meta-monologue as monologue, a nightly riff on the form that calls attention to its conventions as much as it exploits them. Letterman is the acknowledged master of this sort of commentary and joke-salvaging, but Conan has some weapons in his arsenal, too, chiefly Andy Richter, who acts as a sounding board, pinging back lines that can be reworked and often steered into more eccentric territory. They also occasionally break up the monologue with quick little sketch bits, like one pre-taped gem where Richter bids a fond (but not reciprocated) farewell to their lot-mates at The Voice, or another where they mimic the MasterChef fake footage controversy by duplicating rows in the studio audience. There’s a vital comic restlessness to the monologue segments that’s vintage Conan, even if that very quality exhausts detractors like Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman (who wrote a thoughtful takedown last week). 

The interviews: For Conan, the reality of being on TBS means a return to the humble bookings of his old Late Night gig—and obligatory appearances by TBS and TNT luminaries like Memphis Beat’s DJ Qualls and Franklin & Bash’s Mark-Paul Gosselaar—but again, he turns an apparent liability into an asset. For one, nobody’s going to bitch about Conan bringing on Norm MacDonald or other favored oddballs whenever he pleases, and sometimes the third leads are more fun than the stars. Though big-time friend and “Coco” progenitor Tom Hanks gobbles up two or three segments on Thursday in support of Larry Crowne, Jason Sudeikis and Leslie Bibb, the below-the-title stars of Horrible Bosses and Zookeeper, respectively, play well to Conan’s willingness to go to strange places just for a laugh. Inspired by his interview with New York magazine’s Scott Brown, who took him to get a painful reflexology massage, Sudeikis brings out two reflexologists to work on their feet while running through the stock celebrity interview. (On his ticklish spots, Conan quips to his masseuse, “The arch is good, but the toes are crazy. I kick like a mule.”) The next night, Conan cheerfully indulges Bibb, who confesses to an odd habit of turning expressions of admiration into psychotic threats of violence, much like Adam Sandler and Emily Watson’s pillow talk in Punch Drunk Love. (Anjelica Huston, for example, is “so beautiful I want to cut her face.”) 

Conan brings out the best in good guests, but what he does with weak guests is more impressive still. Given Gosselaar, appearing to promote a three-week-old show that nobody likes, Conan mines amusement from a guest who’s giving him little but a story about how the wardrobe department covers up his “package.” With Gosselaar throwing around Franklin & Bash-esque descriptive phrases like “a man-apron for my junkyard,” Conan ends up scoring with an expert piece of mime work illustrating every fold and tuck that goes into the cover-up. Just one segment earlier, he works some similar magic with Liv Tyler, embellishing her tales of motherhood with well-timed references to Footloose and Jay-Z, and speculating whimsically about the contents of her father’s autobiography. Early in his Late Night days, his suspect interviewing skills were a persistent issue, but it’s a problem he’s solved; he listens and reacts well, connects with his guests, and squeezes the most comedy he can out of every interview, even when they’re giving him nothing. 

The bits: This is where Conan has to excel. The monologue and interviews that chew up much of the show are often about getting laughs from stale talk-show standbys, and though he succeeds at dancing around topical one-liners and bantering with guests on promo duty, the studio and pre-taped sketch segments are where Conan and his writers can follow whatever silly comic impulse they’d like. Some of the week’s bits are pleasingly eccentric without necessarily being that funny, like a fake GOP candidate who beats back the many skeletons in his closet (like a photo of him and a porn star smoking meth out of a Reagan bong) by picking blow-dried Southern gent Jack McBrayer as his running mate. And a potentially sharp segment about the “Michelle Bachmann History Channel” mostly falls flat, save for an inspired revision of “The Star-Spangled Banner” fusing “We Are The World” with the “Interrupting Cow” knock-knock joke. Sketches like those are one-third political commentary to two-thirds tomfoolery, with the former providing just enough grounding to keep the silliness from seeming too random and outré. 

Outside the studio bubble, the comedy bits tend to get better and more expansive. A segment on Conan’s proposal to have a street named after him in Los Angeles combines self-deprecation and surrealism: His proposed stretch of road is a godforsaken dust-choked path running parallel to the train tracks, embellished by a lonely DJ, a bullet-riddled sign that says “END,” and a traffic light leading to a Porta Potty. But the real jewel of the week supports NBC’s desire to get Conan out from behind his desk and interacting with people. Inspired by the rise in gas prices, Conan joins three staffers in a carpool to work, and the results are endearingly zany, from riffs on Hollywood star tours (“See those bushes right there? MC Hammer lives in those bushes”) to fire drills where everyone changes seats at red lights. This is joy of a kind that’s inimitably Conan: 

Miscellaneous: As I wrote earlier, with people consuming media—and late-night shows specifically—much differently than they did in the past, shows like Conan have to make some adjustments, particularly in the way they deal with the Internet. Everyone’s well aware of the @ConanOBrien Twitter feed, which wisely forgoes show promotion in favor of retweet-able jokes, but the show’s efforts are impressively thorough all around. The week I watched just happened to be the debut of “Conan’s Concert Series,” which brings musicians into a separate performance space for mini-sets, with one song airing on the show and other songs (and backstage footage) posted on the website later. (I was stuck with Ke$ha, whose work I’d happily avoided until now and whose mysterious fame I leave other, more qualified writers to ponder.) The concert series seems like a smart way to drive viewers to the TeamCoco.com website, where they can find other bit of marginalia, like the rehearsals of the “looks goooooood” catchphrase Conan would exploit to hilarious effect throughout the week, as in this fake preview of the new Captain America movie: 

It’s really not clear when, if ever, Conan will return from basic-cable exile—or even if he desires to make another move if the opportunity arises. But after watching him perform so energetically and skillfully for a week on Conan, I’m inclined to believe that the perspective that so clearly eluded him in the wake of his Tonight Show departure—the period documented in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop—has been found. Sincerely. Anyone who hasn’t seen his recent, heavily circulated Commencement Address at Dartmouth College should watch it in full; it’s a remarkable piece of writing—funny, thoughtful, moving, perfectly judged. But in describing his own wayward journey, this passage stands out: 

At the age of 47, after 25 years of obsessively pursuing my dream, that dream changed. For decades in show business, the ultimate goal of every comedian was to host The Tonight Show. It was the Holy Grail, and like many people I thought that achieving that goal would define me as successful. But that is not true.  No specific job or career goal defines me and it should not define you. In 2000, I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.

Granted, these are the things you say to a graduating class: To stay positive and hopeful, to remain unbowed by the inevitable challenges and disappointments of the working world. And it’s possible, even likely, that Conan’s disappointment over losing The Tonight Show still burns like an ulcer and he’s simply resolved not to complain about it publicly anymore. But the essential state of his life in show business hasn’t changed: He gets to a host a talk show every night. He gets to do it his way, to a diminished but loyal fan base. And by the evidence, he continues to gets great joy from it. Dartmouth’s Class of 2011 should take him at his word. 

More For Our Consideration