Even with Conan O'Brien's return to late night, there's little to entertain

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; C05

Late-night television is like the cereal aisle in the supermarket: too many choices. Also, too many "different" brands that really aren't different at all. And even with the grandly heralded and much-welcome return of Conan O'Brien to the fray, there's still too little that's nourishing, too much that's tasteless and a whole mess of empty calories.

And, prosaic similes aside, there are still too many jokes about how George W. Bush is dumb, Amy Winehouse is a boozer, Madonna is promiscuous and Larry King is old -- just fill in the blanks. The topics are the same and, of course, the schematics of the shows are the same.

The self-deprecating male hosts each read us substantially the same comic benediction with which to close another day of American television. These shows are America's bedtime prayers. The joke topics change and the guest lists evolve, but the hosts all deliver monologues in front of a curtain or other backdrop, most have a semi-wacky sidekick-announcer at the ready, and each show employs a house band whom guests feel drearily duty-bound to praise as just the bestest band what am, honey lamb (to quote Irving Berlin, though nobody does -- wrong zeitgeist).

Overcrowded arena

While it would be unfair to refer to O'Brien as Clone-an, it would also be hard to make the case that we poor little viewers have been starved and parched for late-night refreshment during the months that O'Brien was off pouting and putting together his nominally new show. Even if O'Brien had never come back -- perish the thought, of course -- late-night would still be a hugely overcrowded suburb of prime time -- by its nature, a bedroom community. For those who don't like Dave Letterman, there's Jay Leno; and for those who like neither, there's Craig Ferguson; and if you're still feeling undertained, there's George Lopez and Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel and -- let's see, did we leave out a Jimmy?

As O'Brien begins his second week in the cut-rate purgatory of basic cable (nightly, Monday through Thursday, at 11 on TBS), his show seems both comfortably ensconced and prematurely old. How could it not seem familiar, when O'Brien has been doing the same basic show for 17 years? What has surprised many reviewers who gave the show a fairly tepid reception is that so little innovation is apparent. But then, neither TBS nor Team Coco promised a show that would be "all-new" and improved.

"Why are we supposed to come up with something different?" asks a high-ranking and longtime member of the O'Brien staff, who said he could only speak frankly if he remained anonymous. "We were doing a show, and now we're doing another show." It doesn't have to be different, he argues; it only has to be good.

And it is. The first week started at too feverish a pitch, but the same thing happened when Conan briefly took over "The Tonight Show" before NBC clumsily returned it to the care of Leno. As the week progressed, Conan seemed right at home and viewers must have felt that way, too. His second show benefited from the presence of an absolutely sure-fire guest, Tom Hanks -- who, as when he appears with Letterman, did more than just sit there and talk about how much he loved working with so-and-so on such-and-such and how he treasures every chance to "hone" his "craft." Oh, brother -- how often have we sat through that baloney?

Somehow the topic turned to whales, and magically enough, whales appeared in the oceanic panoramic that is O'Brien's backdrop, a giant artificial moon hanging above the waves. The whales looked not real, perhaps, but very effectively faked, especially when a huge one rose from the sea and splashed down again -- and Hanks was doused in buckets of real water, while inches away, O'Brien remained dry. It was hilarious, startling, a lavish surprise -- water-cooler material to be sure.

Better set, better guests

This time out, O'Brien's guests seem to be much better (during his "Tonight Show" tenure, one show was completely dominated by Ryan Seacrest trying to be funny, and failing) and the set for the show (he's moved to Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif., just one or two freeway exits from his previous home at Universal) is less cold and intimidating. That other set was pretty, yes, but it proved a major impediment to any attempt at intimacy or merriment. In fact, it leaned toward nightmarish in some creepy way.

All the elements seem capably deployed, although, unhappily for us, Max Weinberg is absent as the bandleader. The bands on these shows are generally all the same with one glorious exception: the quixotic, exotic and tuba-equipped Roots on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," the show that O'Brien, and before that Letterman, used to helm on NBC. Fallon's show is aimed more at younger viewers than any of the others, with gimmicks and comedy bits built around iPods, Twittering, Facebook, e-mail and the whole nutty Internet universe -- making it a kind of cyber circus with the engagingly versatile, and boyishly charming Fallon as the ringmaster.

Of all the late-night shows, Fallon's has the most distinctive personality. You might hate it, but it's distinctive. Fallon's jaw drops way too easily when he plays host to higher-echelon stars and celebrities, but that comes across as ingenuous, utterly unaffected. He's an adroit, if highly selective, impressionist and a convincingly qualified part-time musician. Yes, he's all over the show, but that seems less like Jerry-Lewisy hamminess than bouncing bravado.

And if the comedy occasionally slips from sophomoric to juvenile, and then still further to infantile, it's forgivable under the circumstances -- the chief circumstance being that it's half past midnight when the show starts. With the clout of executive producer Lorne Michaels an obvious asset, Fallon has lured some great guests to the show -- Bruce Springsteen will be his sole guest Tuesday night -- and there are nights when everything goes click-click-click as it did in the sweetest, nuttiest years of "Late Night" when Letterman was its brilliantly enterprising host.

Letterman once complained to an interviewer that I praised him too much way back in those early days; what other TV egomaniac would ever have such a grievance? He was probably right. Now, all these years later, Letterman is still by several lengths the most fascinating -- and maddening -- of not just all the late-night avatars but among all the personalities who ever reigned monarchical over hours upon the air. He's old enough to be a living link to television's organic roots, and he upholds a tradition begun by Jack Paar: He's so peculiarly mercurial that viewers can't resist trying to figure him out, to wonder what he's "really" like.

Well, pathological, for one thing. But also possessed of the fastest, wittiest comic mind around. Why he continues to rely on the imbecilic and obnoxious intrusions of bandleader Paul Shaffer is a mystery, but then why change something so integral at this point? Ever since his open-heart surgery and, subsequently, the unseemly (and yet in some odd way ridiculous) scandal involving girlfriends on his staff, Letterman's serious streak has been more pronounced, but he will never lose his rueful appreciation for the insanities of humanity in general, celebrities in particular.

His is the only late-night show that might reasonably be described as flirting with genius, at least on its best nights. Conan O'Brien absolutely earns his place in the pantheon by working terribly hard and never relaxing (the poor fools who host these shows are all, to some degree, possessed); it's just a pity the pantheon is so overpopulated.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company