If you’ve been living in a TV-free cave, you may have missed the fact that Conan O’Brien returned to the late-night airwaves on Monday, Nov. 8. A year ago, Conan was the most high-profile casualty of the Late-Night Ratings War: Round 2. When Jay Leno was promoted to NBC’s prime-time lineup (a move even the most casual of TV viewers knew was boneheaded), O’Brien inherited the sweet 10:30 p.m. “Tonight Show” slot. A few months later, when NBC executives realized their grand plan was tanking, Leno was shipped back to “The Tonight Show.” With nowhere to go (his old “Late Night” slot got taken over by Jimmy Fallon), O’Brien was sent packing.
Now, after waiting out the last binding clauses of his NBC contract, O’Brien has resurfaced on basic cable giant TBS. By empirical accounts, Conan’s new show (titled, simply, “Conan”) did well. The premiere episode pulled in 4.2 million viewers—which is a lot for semi-late-night basic cable. (On the same night, Leno’s “Tonight Show” pulled in 3.5 million, while Letterman’s “Late Show” got 3.4 million.) As the week wore on, viewership dropped off—as expected—before settling into a comfortable 2.9 million average. That’s a bit below Leno and Letterman, but close enough to call it a three-way horse race.
As the dutiful film and television editor here at the Alibi, I spent a week watching “Conan” with an eye toward reviewing the show. But as the nights wore on, I realized there was simply no point to it. If you’re a dedicated Team Coco fan, you’re watching. If you’re not, you’re not.
My greater insight is there’s not much to talk about when it comes to talk shows. Slight variations in host personality aside, “Conan” is exactly like every other late-night talk show on TV. The set is raised and carpeted. It’s got a wooden desk situated on the right of the stage with a chair and a couch on the left. In the background is a panoramic, nighttime view of Los Angeles (the only other option being a panoramic, nighttime view of New York City). The show opens with a monologue, slightly tweaking the day’s headlines. That’s followed by a sit-down and some brief banter with the co-host/bandleader (in this case, Andy Richter, who it’s good to see back). Next is a (usually pre-taped) comic sketch of some sort. Following a commercial break, we get our first guest, usually a movie or TV star. (Seth Rogen, whose new movie Green Hornet doesn’t even come out until January, was Conan’s inaugural chair-warmer.) The second guest is typically a musician who gets to chat for a segment before playing his or her current single.
Conan’s new show follows this formula without deviation. What with the 24-hour hype machine that is the Internet/Facebook/Twitter, it makes you wonder if there’s really a point to TV talk shows any more. Do we really need another one to add to the pile alongside Leno, Letterman, Fallon, Kimmel, Ferguson, Daly, Lopez, et al? Or should the whole stale formula be put to rest alongside the long-mummified corpse of Jack Paar?