Thursday, June 3, 2010

Conan O’Brien’s ‘Prohibited’ Tour: Doing Unemployment Right

I was unemployed for six months in 2009 after being laid off, and after seeing the kind of crazy fun hilarious stuff Conan O’Brien is doing with his unemployed time, I wish I had been more productive with mine.

So everyone knows the story by now, right? Jay Leno is back to hosting The Tonight Show, Conan is getting a new show on TBS in the fall, and everyone hates NBC (no matter which late night host you prefer). Part of his departure agreement from NBC prohibits Conan from performing comedy on TV, radio, or online until the fall, which left him with several months to fill. Presumably that’s not enough time to establish oneself as a movie star, so Conan decided to hit the streets with his band, writing staff, and sidekick Andy Richter on a multi-city tour, which eventually landed him back at his old stomping ground, New York City. Specifically, Radio City Music Hall. Ironically, just a few yards away from NBC Studios.

There’s really no way to review an event like the “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour”; if you’re already a fan of Conan’s manic style of performing and bizarre sense of humor, then chances are you’re going to enjoy over two hours of him doing it live in front of you without the censors and filters of network television. So I guess this isn’t a review, but more of a rundown of how the evening went so that you feel bad about not being there.

Leno may be better at pulling in overall viewers, but I don’t think he’s ever had the sort of fans Conan has. They are a rabid and loyal group of followers who relish Conan’s balls to the wall style, who appreciate him even when he’s having an “off” moment, because at least he never goes the easy route of pandering to a middle-of-the-road audience. Why else would we be willing to subject ourselves to the moniker “Team Coco”? Many detractors complain that he’s a millionaire who was paid incredibly well to leave NBC, so he should stop whining about losing his gig there, and there’s some truth there. But when he manages to turn his somewhat unrighteous indignation into comedy gold (which the “Prohibited” tour is), I hope he never gets over it.

So…what to say about the show…well, the band still rocks (even with the absence of drummer Max Weinberg), the pre-taped sketches are hilarious (especially the one featuring Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, which is deliberately poorly re-dubbed in each city to add some local flavor), and Conan is a tireless entertainer. Even the opening act—Brooklyn-based comedian Reggie Watts—was a treat, because with his dandelion-puff afro, stream-of-consciousness songs, and mad beat-boxing skills, he’s so off-centered it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been a member of Conan’s entourage for years.

As the tour has been making its way across the country, various nearby celebrity friends of Conan’s have stopped by to make guest appearances, and I was pretty sure that he would have no shortage of guests here in NYC. To say I was right would be kind of an understatement. First (and least impressive) to stop by was the band Vampire Weekend, who Conan played guitar with while they performed one of their songs, of which I never understood one word (leading me to dub their lead singer “Mushmouth”). Later in the evening, the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever made an appearance—I mean, the Chuck Norris, Rural Policeman Handle (no copyright infringement going on here, NBC)—and Bill Hader, John Krasinski, and Paul Rudd each came onstage to take a turn pulling it. But the moment that really set the crowd off was when Stephen Colbert arrived (apparently in someone else’s pants, as he had trouble keeping them up) to berate Conan for leaving NYC; an argument that ended with them literally nose-to-nose (and mouth-to-mouth) and competing in the world’s most awkward dance-off. When Colbert “injured” himself, Jon Stewart stormed through the audience to take his place. The three men obviously had little time to rehearse their bit, as they giggled and stumbled their way through it, which made the moment that much more enjoyable, especially when Stewart referred to them collectively as the “Basic Cable Boys.”

It was a fantastic night for Conan devotees, as we got a little bit of everything we were hoping for; some well-rehearsed comedy bits, some off-the-cuff improv, celebrity guests, the string dance, general snarkiness, plenty of music, and the world’s least intimidating giant inflatable bat. It’s almost enough to tie us over until November when Conan’s new show premieres on TBS. But not quite enough to justify the $45 they’re charging for souvenir shirts. Which I bought anyway. Because I’m all about helping the struggling artists out there.

Here are a couple of choice (amateur) videos from the night:

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