At DAR, a bright reemergence of Conan-may-care attitude

The former "Tonight Show" host performed his "Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television" show at the D.A.R. Constitution Hall on June 8, 2010.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

After a little bit of career unpleasantness back in January, Conan O'Brien has reemerged with his bitterness stowed and his lack of dignity intact. This is a very good thing, judging by the antic, amped-up and often hilarious road show that O'Brien brought to DAR Constitution Hall on Tuesday night.

O'Brien was as loose as his look -- bearded, tieless, untucked -- in hosting what amounted to a freewheeling variety show of video bits, standup comedy, skits, musical interludes and familiar elements from his late, late TV shows. Think of it as a louder, cheerfully off-kilter "Ed Sullivan Show."

You know the hashed-to-death context of this tour by now. O'Brien flopped as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" after seven months on the job, then quit rather than suffer the indignity of having to move to a later time slot to make way for Jay Leno's hasty retreat back to late night. To soothe his wounds, NBC handed O'Brien a $32.5 million severance check and extracted a promise that he wouldn't bad-mouth the network and its executives. So, with a bit of free time on his hands before he starts a new talk show on TBS this fall, O'Brien launched his 32-city "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on TV" tour, which winds up next week.

"This is the first time in my entire career anyone has ever paid to see me," he told a hall full of CoCo-nuts on Tuesday. "Don't get me wrong. They paid to make me go away."

The quip may be key to appreciating O'Brien's brand of humor, which admittedly is a minority taste, given his disastrous "Tonight" ratings. He's too knowing, wry and self-deprecating a performer to wallow in self-pity or resentment, even if his wildly loyal fans (who booed at the mention of NBC) would gladly nominate him for martyrdom. Mocking one's self-pity -- now that's more like our boy.

So O'Brien clapped the NBC debacle around his shoulders like a cloak, and then spent the evening making fun of it and himself. His taped opening featured him in the imagined aftermath of his TV demise, grossly overweight and feeding peanut butter to his dog with his toes to the strains of Eric Carmen's "All by Myself." He also got some mileage out of another segment in which he delineated the eight steps for mourning the loss of one's talk show. Stage seven: Buying Everything Amazon Says I Would Also Like.

"[Bleep] Jay Leno!" shouted an audience member, whose timing suggested he was planted.

But O'Brien declined to pile on (he does, after all, owe Leno for 17 years of strong lead-in audiences). The closest he came were a few words of garbled, high-pitched Leno mimicry, which Conan facetiously suggested was his impersonation of the rapper Ludacris. He also made no mention of Jeff Zucker, the NBC executive who signed Conan to host "Tonight," but then (arguably) undercut him by slotting Leno at 10 p.m. last fall. A mediocre feature starring Conan as a generic network executive ("We're now the 17th most popular network on the air!") lacked much bite.

O'Brien was more likely to go for self-referential putdowns. His new beard, he said at one point, made him look like "Paul Bunyan with an eating disorder" or "the Brawny paper towel man before his bone-marrow transplant."

To the pleasure of the nearly sold-out hall, the show trotted out such Conan standbys as sidekick Andy Richter, a band fronted by trombonist Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg, ludicrous clips from "Walker, Texas Ranger" and a taped segment from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who made fun of standup comics who drop smarmy local references into their routines.

A few things were missing, namely the surprise celebrity guests that have enlivened the tour in other cities. In New York, for example, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert stopped by for an impromptu dance-off. Seth Green, Jonah Hill and Sarah Silverman showed up at stops on the West Coast. Even Kansas City got Jason Sudeikis.

If the live show is some indication, better days may be ahead for O'Brien after his "Tonight Show" flameout. He should always be this fresh, this devil-may-care. Maybe being on cable, with its narrower and more idiosyncratic audiences, will free O'Brien to be O'Brien. Based on the evidence Tuesday night, that could be very entertaining.

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