Conan O’Brien may have been hilarious on Late Night, but his Tonight Show was seriously unfunny. Plus, watch five classic Tonight Show controversies.
As a member of the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic, let me say that I thought Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show stunk. I like Conan—I really do. I feel bad that he’s become the latest corpse in Jeff Zucker’s NBC funeral parlor. But in all the odes to Conan’s martyrdom, no one actually seems to be defending his seven-month-old Tonight Show. That’s because the show, even for us Cocophiles, wasn’t funny.
I say this as a loyalist of O’Brien’s Late Night heyday (1993-2009), the era of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Conando, Desk Driving, “In the Year 2000,” PimpBot 5000, staring contests with Andy Richter, deadpan acting by Max Weinberg, and every bit written or voiced by the wonderfully demented Robert Smigel. I am solidly part of Conan’s base—that is, a thirtysomething male who is not averse to robot humor.
The most baffling question about Conan’s Tonight Show: Who was it for?
But Conan’s Tonight Show left me utterly bored after a few shows. The problems were fundamental. First is that here in the hangover of the 2008 election, we want political satire. O’Brien doesn’t do much political satire. If you think of the transcendent bits that surfaced on YouTube since Conan began Tonight last June, they’ve come from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, various cable chat shows, even ancient Saturday Night Live. Jay Leno may be murderously unfunny, but he has the good sense to do jokes about the president/put his finger into the wind.
• Watch Five Classic Tonight Show ControversiesConan’s only major contribution to political goofery is Smigel’s (inspired) ventriloquism of politicians like George W. Bush. It’s no wonder that O’Brien’s Late Night ratings plummeted by nearly 700,000 viewers (more than 25 percent) back in 2008, when the nation glued its eyes to the campaign. It should have been an omen: His Tonight Show felt off-topic before it started.
That might not have been so deadly if the Tonight throne hadn’t distorted what made O’Brien funny. The problem is not the old saw that O’Brien’s “brand of comedy” doesn’t play at 11:35 p.m. Carson and Letterman had plenty of inspired wackiness, and Grandma and Grandpa liked them just fine. The problem is that O’Brien is really at his best as a straight man—the guy doing the horrified reaction shot when the masturbating bear runs out on stage. He’s a ringmaster rather than an emotional center of gravity.
This flows from O’Brien’s Harvard Lampoon sensibility, a kind of comedy that is impish and intellectual rather than crusading and heartfelt. (You can never imagine Conan snarling like Jon Stewart.) There’s nothing wrong with this, and it could work within the right show. But when O’Brien sat down at Johnny’s desk, the gravitas seemed to throw off his balance. The show’s first week was an embarrassing celebration of all things Conan—see the opening sketch. It should have rightly celebrated the whole Conan traveling circus, from the dog to the masturbating bear. Recall that Letterman’s triumphant first months on CBS were devoted as much to whichever character popped up on Broadway as to Dave himself.
The most baffling question about Conan’s Tonight Show: Who was it for? Last year, he told The New York Times Magazine, “The biggest mistake would be to alter my signal to reach all these different people.” But it almost felt like O’Brien heard all of the worries about Leno’s old viewers abandoning him en masse, so he tried to split the difference. His show wasn’t for the old or for the young; it seemed lodged in the ravine between Leno’s fusty Tonight on the one hand, and Colbert, Kimmel, Ferguson, Chelsea Handler, and his hipper competitors on the other. No amount of Noches de Pasion could change that.
None of this is to say that O’Brien’s Tonight Show wasn’t smothered in the crib (though the man has been on NBC’s late night for going on 17 years—how long does it take to find your footing?). Faced with eviction, O’Brien did the noble thing and published a screw-you to NBC. And the thing is, it was funny (“People of Earth…”), angry, unblinking, and, in its invocation of Saint Johnny—something O’Brien did again Tuesday night—actually quite touching. The man seemed to know why he wanted to be there. Too bad he never did while he was hosting The Tonight Show.
Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.