Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien: Surviving Week One

Conan O’Brien has officially taken over hosting The Tonight Show and successfully survived his first week. Personally, I’ve always loved Conan’s bizarre brand of humor that’s part slapstick, part nonsense, and more often than not, completely juvenile. So I’m loving his brand of The Tonight Show and think he adds a much needed jolt of energy to the show. But I can see how those who were fans of former host Jay Leno’s more middle of the road humor will have some trouble adjusting to the silliness that is Conan. And silliness did abound in his first week as host, where while he did often appear nervous and overwhelmed, I think he did a great job and I look forward to seeing how the show progresses once he’s settled in.

Some of my favorite things from the first week:

* The first episode’s cold open, in which Conan runs cross country from NYC to Los Angeles, passing monuments like the St. Louis arch and the Las Vegas welcome sign, and making an obviously much needed stop in a Victorian doll shop. Then once breathlessly arriving at his new studio, he realizes he left his keys back in NYC, so he uses a bulldozer to gain entrance. It was a cute and entertaining way to start the show, and showed that Conan had no intention of abandoning the ridiculous taped sketches that he always had on Late Night.

* Also in the first episode, when Conan hijacks a Universal Studios tram tour and takes them out on the street, stopping at a Dollar Store to buy all the passenger gifts. Why? Why the hell not?!

* The new set. The Late Night set in NYC was teeny and very dark. But the new Tonight Show set on the Universal Studios lot is bright, airy, and cheerful, which fits Conan’s type of jubilant and silly humor much better. And as was pointed out in Friday’s episode, the blue art deco backdrop resembles scenes from Super Mario Brothers, and what’s more fun than Super Mario Brothers?

* After musical guests Green Day present him with a guitar, Conan mock-snidely tells his other guest, Tom Hanks, to “next time, bring a gift!”

* The gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) ribbing of band leader Max Weinberg continues. On Late Night, Conan always took childlike delight in teasing the stoic Max, who usually reacted with a disdainful poker face. In the course of the first week of The Tonight Show, Conan implies that Max is an elderly Asian lady, a registered sex offender, and a bigger media whore than Jon & Kate Plus Eight. I can’t wait to see what false atrocities Max will be accused of in the second week.

* Also, the utter nonsense continues. Some of my favorite Late Night moments were the ones where the joke doesn’t seem to make any sense, but like when a ten-year-old tells you a knock-knock joke they made up themselves, you still have to laugh. After saying how bad the traffic is in LA, Conan then cuts to footage of simulated traffic jams (made of Matchbox cars) to see what the holdups are. And naturally, they’re a flock of ducklings crossing the street, a baby, and a dog having a bar mitzvah. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but that didn’t stop me from laughing anyway.

The only part of the new Tonight Show that I’m not a huge fan of is Conan’s former sidekick, Andy Richter, as the show’s announcer. I do think Richter can be an entertaining guy, and it’s a shame that all of his attempts at starring in a sitcom haven’t gone well, but as the show’s announcer, he just doesn’t fit. His voice is too nasal and whiny, rather than booming and authoritative. And rather than having him enclosed in an announcer’s booth somewhere, he’s at a podium right on the floor, so whenever Conan gets flustered or a joke doesn’t get the audience reaction he was expecting, he turns to Richter with a comment, to which Richter has to come up with some lame response. I never had a problem with the sidekick format the two men has during Late Night’s earlier days, so if they want to go back to that, do it. But the Richter as announcer setup isn’t working, and it’s coming off as a pathetic attempt for Conan to throw a bone to his consistently unemployed pal. Which is exactly what the situation is, but I don’t think we as the audience are supposed to actually know that.

Photo © Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

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