Inside Conan O’Brien’s Not-So-Radical ‘Reinvention’: Big on Stars, Light on Politics
The debut of Conan O’Brien’s ‘reinvented’ late-night show felt a lot like his old show, only shorter.
As Conan O’Brien was preparing to premiere the TBS version of his talk show in 2010, there was speculation that he might do something genuinely different with the staid late-night form. After being rudely ousted from The Tonight Show by NBC the year before, this was the former SNL and Simpsons writer’s chance to make the show he’d always wanted to with full creative freedom and no pressure to compete with network hosts like David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel.
And yet Conan, which debuted on Nov. 8, 2010, looked pretty much like everything that came before it. The hour-long show had a monologue up top, a big, brassy band off to the side, a couple of celebrity interviews and either a musical guest or a stand-up comic to close things out.
It felt like a missed opportunity for true reinvention. Now, after nearly a decade and a drop in ratings, the longest-serving late-night host in the game is getting a do-over.
The new Conan, which premiered Tuesday night on TBS, has been trimmed down to 30 minutes and will typically feature just one celebrity guest per episode—Tom Hanks had the honor on night one. Upcoming guests include comedians Bill Hader, Tig Notaro, Pete Holmes and the cast of The Good Place.
O’Brien has jettisoned his band, his desk and his suit—though noticeably, he so far hasn’t let go of his tie—projecting the more casual persona that has shone through to positive effect on his excellent new podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.
And yet the host still began his show with a monologue, complete with snarky asides from his sidekick Andy Richter, who thankfully survived the downsizing. “I’m happy to announce right now that the three-month Conan shutdown is officially over,” O’Brien began to cheers from his loyal audience. That was as political as cable’s most apolitical late-night host got.
His opening-night monologue maintained a simultaneously self-referential and self-deprecating stance. Despite the show’s new 30-minute run time, O’Brien told viewers, “I assure you, it’s going to feel like two hours, alright? That’s the effect I have.” An unfortunate This Is Us parody was only slightly redeemed by a cameo from Milo Ventimiglia.
The rest of the episode belonged almost entirely to O’Brien’s interview with Tom Hanks, who is actually responsible for coining his “Coco” nickname. By dedicating more time to a single guest, the host was able to get into territory that wouldn’t have fit as well into his old format. For instance, it’s hard to imagine O’Brien asking a question like, “What are you insecure about?” in the previous incarnations of his show. And instead of awkwardly cutting off the conversation to throw to commercial, the screen simply faded out and picked up around where they left off after the break.
Still, there was an all-too-familiar feel to O’Brien’s “reinvented” show. He has not made the type of radical shift that David Letterman achieved when he moved from CBS to Netflix last year, throwing out everything that made his Late Show work and focusing on long-form interviews with more substantive guests like President Obama and Malala Yousafzai. Of course, on Netflix Letterman was not beholden to traditional ratings.
There’s still a chance that O’Brien could use the new format to continue to push boundaries further in future episodes, perhaps opening with a taped field piece instead of a traditional monologue or letting his interviews unfold without the aid of predetermined anecdotes.
But as of night one, the new Conan feels a lot like the Conan O’Brien who has now been part of the late-night landscape for a quarter of a century. We can only hope that the reinvention continues.