By naming Conan O’Brien the heir to Jay Leno’s throne, NBC replaced a comedian known for his broad appeal with one in the mode of Leno’s old friend/nemesis, David Letterman. Like his idol Letterman, O’Brien was innovative, unpredictable, and polarizing — the antithesis of Leno’s genial, if bland, humor. While NBC wanted to keep O’Brien from leaving for ABC or Fox, and thereby further fragmenting the late night landscape, they also retained their commitment to The Tonight Show as one of the remaining bastions of “broadcasting” (as opposed to narrowcasting). O’Brien was thus expected to adapt his quirky humor to the tastes of an older mass audience. According to Bill Carter’s new book The War for Late Night, NBC executives (particularly Dick Ebersol) became annoyed with O’Brien for what they understood as his refusal to adjust to the earlier time slot during his brief run as Tonight‘s host.
In reality, O’Brien’s Tonight Show was considerably watered down from its 12:30 predecessor — the bawdy, sophomoric edge of Late Night (against which O’Brien would hilariously play an aghast straight man) was buried in favor of another side of O’Brien’s persona — the pleasant, inoffensive goofball. O’Brien’s Tonight Show had tried to appeal to a wider audience, and ended up satisfying few.
Despite NBC and Leno’s assertions that O’Brien’s low ratings played a key role in the late night shake-up, Carter’s book makes clear that the disastrous performance of the prime time Jay Leno Show was almost solely responsible — that and the unusual “pay-and-play” stipulation in Leno’s contract that guaranteed him a spot on the NBC schedule. The 12:05 slot on NBC would have been an excellent fit for O’Brien, but his relationship with NBC had grown toxic due largely to undiplomatic behavior on the part of NBC execs like Ebersol and CEO Jeff Zucker. Carter depicts the execs as unable to empathize with the sensitive artiste O’Brien, and as understanding late night purely in terms of numbers (in the same way, Leno is portrayed as obsessed with minute-by-minute ratings fluctuations, while the other late night hosts take a more holistic, organic approach to their craft.)
The NBC debacle served to catalyze O’Brien’s young fan base; people who avoided watching broadcast TV but knew O’Brien through the internet became ardent members of “Team Coco.” O’Brien’s post-Tonight theater tour solidified his cult, folk-hero status. Unlike O’Brien’s Tonight Show, which tried to win over skeptical Leno fans, Conan is aimed squarely at Team Coco. It presumes an audience that already finds Conan charming — how else could O’Brien get away with singing (and taking a guitar solo) on a duet of “Twenty Flight Rock” with Jack White at the show’s conclusion?
O’Brien’s return to narrowcasting was never more evident than in his choice of first guest. Even Seth Rogen himself wondered what he was doing there: “I’m so glad everyone more famous was busy right now.” Rogen and his stories about medical marijuana and his fiancee’s “titties” targeted the 18-34 demo, with no regard for older audiences.
Overall, the TBS premiere was refreshing in its ordinariness, its willingness to be unremarkable. There was little of the sense of “event TV” that characterized Conan’s Tonight premiere – which, for me, was a good thing. The elephantine first episode of O’Brien’s Tonight, front-loaded with overlong, not-especially-funny remote segments, seemed like it was trying too hard. Conan was enjoyably brisk in comparison — with each guest on for about six minutes, even O’Brien remarked at how quickly the show flew by.
The Conan premiere’s lack of showy excess is partly a function of the program’s industrial status — it’s hard to celebrate a move to basic cable, after all. Yet working for TBS should be an artistic boon for O’Brien – the channel’s lowered expectations will allow him to further build his niche appeal and foster the underdog status that suits his self-deprecating style.