By Hank Stuever
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 1:40 AM
A bit weirder and defiantly beardier, Conan O'Brien successfully transplanted his late-night talk show to basic cable network TBS on Monday night - successfully, that is, if the goal was merely to relocate it brick for brick, format for format, piece by predictable piece. Without a trace of innovation or deviation from the original recipe, "Conan" was mainly guided by the idea that the people want what the people want.
Well, who knows what the people want? A desk, a band, a couple of movie stars? A sweet-looking old lady (who works at a Nutcracker museum) who is co-opted into a "first guest" sketch that ironically mocks her cute squareness? A full moon on the set's backdrop that O'Brien can move by remote control? All that and more.
O'Brien, who has turned 47 in the intervening lull of the so-called late-night wars, seemed confident Monday that his deep-seated, well-tweeted, still peeved-at-NBC niche crowd is a strong enough demographic to sustain his shtick elsewhere on the dial.
"This is an exciting night. I'm glad to be on cable - truth is, I've dreamed of being a talk show host on basic cable ever since I was 46," O'Brien joked in his opening monologue, after a sketch that compared his late-night debacles in early 2010 to a mafia hit instead of a walk-away deal in which O'Brien was reportedly paid tens of millions of dollars.
"And things are going well already," he continued. "I'm happy to report that we're already number 1 in TBS's key demographic: people who can't afford HBO."
Then, right after that, he said, "I'm going to be honest: It's not easy doing a late-night show on a channel without a lot of money and that viewers have trouble finding. So that's why I left NBC."
After all, he is not just Conan O'Brien, he is Coco now - Coco unhinged, brandishing his usual Ivy-tinged snark and a guitar, jamming with his musical guest Jack White, which makes him just about the coolest cat of...2003. The show's vibe felt just desperate enough (where was the coolness? The nonchalance?) to lead a viewer to wonder how long it will last this time.
There were also a lot of jokes about that. "People ask me why I named the show 'Conan,'" O'Brien said. "I did it so I'd be harder to replace." The first episode - from opening sketch to monologue to banter with guests - took every opportunity to make light of O'Brien's unlikely journey from network TV to cable in barely nine months, and the idea that it could all end at any minute.
O'Brien's banter with his loyal sidekick, Andy Richter, was more funny in that regard, as the two tried on rubber "Ex-Talk Show Host" Halloween masks in O'Brien's unlicensed visage. "It's very authentic," Richter said, wearing a Coco mask. "Inside it smells like tears."
Some want O'Brien on whatever channel he lands on - partly because he's funny, but also for the lingering residue of resentment some have about his short-lived, seven-month misadventure as NBC's "Tonight Show" host, before the network decided to bring Jay Leno back to the 11:30 p.m. slot. Watching "Conan" now is as much as about not watching something or someone else, on a principle that seems to divide post-ironic viewers, for whom television is just an endless Mobius strip of jokes about being on television, from those who like their late-night comedy slightly more somnolent. (Except of course for everyone already watching Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson. The fact is, for sharp humor, we've never had it better after the news, so long as we can hold off the snooze.)
It will be many more shows before "Conan" finds a way to distinguish itself - which leads to the question of whether it's fair to judge "Conan" on one episode.
Sure it is, if only because of the weeks and weeks of "Conan" ads on TV, on billboards, before movie trailers and online. You can't hype your first episode that hard and then expect a pass.
Which is why it's so odd that after all that buildup, Team Coco came forth with so much dull comedy - even if you factor in the renegade use of a self-pleasuring bear character, about whom much has been written, as O'Brien reportedly tussles with NBC over the rights to character sketches that used to appear on his old show.
Bear or no bear, "Conan's" debut seemed like it had been written hastily on Post-it notes, rather than the showing off the under-appreciated genius that its host has been fostering during his temporary television exile. An early sketch asked us to imagine this gazillionaire living in a tract house with a nagging wife and 14 hungry children, accepting work as a birthday clown and a Burger King wage slave.
It's a fine line with Coco. For every funny line he squeezed from his anger Monday night, he missed the point of pathos.
In the end, it's always difficult to watch America root wildly for a rich guy who had to leave one television gig for a relatively immediate chance at another. By the time O'Brien was rushing through interviews with his supportive guests - movie actor Seth Rogen, "Glee" star Lea Michele - it became clear that the expectations for "Conan" were just too darn high. For all his trying to reassert his place on TV, O'Brien forgot to look happy to be there. Up to the point that he began trading guitar riffs with White, he looked worried. The rock loosened him up.
He's not the future of comedy or the savior of all hipsterdom. He's a man at a desk, making jokes about himself while making chitchat with other famous people. Is it possible we have too much collective cultural energy invested in this strange art form?