How Conan O’Brien Became the Dark Horse of Late Night

Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | February 2, 2018

I have oddly clear memories of the extended fallout from NBC screwing up their late night line-up after Conan O’Brien took over The Tonight Show. I never watched him or Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon, given that I was 3000 miles away and lacking in access to the necessary network. What I did have was an unusual fascination with American politics and cable news networks. Coupled with a nice dose of insomnia, I ended up spending a lot of my evenings watching CNN and MSNBC on my laptop, wherein I encountered the entire saga of The Tonight Show. In seven mere months, our generation got its own version of The Late Shift. What probably should have been a mere network scuffle and extended negotiations between agents became a symbolic battle between Gen-X and the baby boomers. Everyone knew it wasn’t fair that O’Brien, who had barely been given time to establish his tenure, was being pushed out in favour of the guy he’d replaced. Every host’s monologue became headline news as we awaited the battle for the soul of late night to reach its inevitable conclusion. It wasn’t just about comedy: It was about which people’s work and ideas were valued more under the harsh gaze of cold, hard capitalism. Leno was the old guard who refused to leave, and Conan was the underdog who had it all ripped from his hands. People literally protested this. This was a huge fucking deal.

Nowadays, late night is a different beast. We have more options available, the live audiences are smaller than ever, and the true fight for domination is reliant on YouTube views. We all fight over Jimmy Fallon and his hair ruffling, wonder if Stephen Colbert can remain the elder statesman of the hour, turn to Seth Meyers for a closer look, and wonder how we got to 2018 and still only have two women hosting late night shows. Late night isn’t exactly redundant in the age of Peak TV, but it’s certainly lost most of its necessity.

Conan is still on the air. He moved to TBS once his post-NBC contract allowed him to do so, and he’s settled in nicely on the channel. His live viewer numbers are pretty low - some of the lowest in that time slot - but that hardly seems to matter. What many viewed as a bad move for O’Brien ended up giving him a boost. Why be the number one when it’s way more satisfying to be the dark horse?


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TBS is not a hot-shot network. They obviously can’t land a lot of the A-List names that The Tonight Show could pull in. That’s partly why you see Conan mostly interviewing comedians and stars whose work falls under the Time-Warner umbrella (corporate synergy is still the life-blood of late night). The interviews tend to be the weakest part of any late night show. Unless you’re a truly stellar interviewer - and even Colbert struggles on this front - this can be an area where your host simply goes through the motions. Sometimes Conan does that, but on TBS, he’s evidently more relaxed and enjoying shooting the shit with small-time guests. There’s nothing worse than forced banter, but for the most part, Conan keeps it fresh. You can tell he’s much more at home with relaxed expectations. Team Coco was certainly a spirit lifter but it’s a huge amount of pressure to put on the shoulders of a mere comedian.

Late night is smart enough these days to know where the real viewer numbers are. If you’re not updating your YouTube channel daily with full clips from the previous night’s show, you’re not going to be able to keep up with your competition. Those ‘viral moments’ have become more crucial than ever. For a long time, Fallon was the king of the viral late night clip: His extended children’s party games featuring the biggest celebrities on the planet was a publicity dream both for himself and the stars in question. James Corden has muscled in on that shtick with schoolboy zeal, while Colbert and Meyers aim for a more adult approach in their political monologues. Trevor Noah and The Daily Show have impeccable savvy reaching international audiences with content specifically made for those online viewers, while Jimmy Kimmel keeps a fine balance between frat-boy humour and activist pathos. For Conan, his online approach has taken a younger focus.

YouTube’s most profitable demographic remains teenagers, and even the biggest technophobe knows about the money pit that is gaming videos. There’s an immense and wholeheartedly captive audience for watching people play video games to varying degrees of screaming commentary. Clueless Gamer is Conan’s contribution to the genre, and it’s surprisingly enjoyable. The set-up is simple - Conan doesn’t know a thing about video games, but he’ll play them in a frenzy of confusion anyway - and ends up being fun for gamers and novices alike. Watching Conan get more and more confused by Super Smash Bros. is a true gem.


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These aren’t just viral moments either. This is the show at its smartest on a marketing level. They get access to buzzed about video games pre-release, they invite celebrities to play with them, and comedy ensues. The young viewers of YouTube love this stuff, and it gets the official Team Coco channel some of its highest ratings per video. None of the other late night hosts are specifically appealing to the online age of young audiences in this manner. It’s cheeky but not condescending; appealling to the hardcore gamers but still open to the filthy casuals. Clueless Gamer, which is getting its own spin-off, is also more accessible a piece of gaming entertainment than, say, the PewDiePies of the world, whose screeching can seem impenetrable to those out of the loop.

I’m not sure if Conan would necessarily describe himself as a geek in the modern sense, but his show has done wonders in catering to that audience through gaming clips and their work at Comic-Con. He nails that combination of undeniable joy and ‘old man yells at cloud’ confusion over everything from the Batmobile to playing guitar Fury Road style. Being under the banner of Time-Warner certainly has its benefits, but it’s also a good fit for Conan. It’s mainstream enough to reach the widest audiences but he has a niche enough approach to make it seem less corporately mandated.

The other side to Conan’s viral moments is one that most late night hosts will never have the freedom to accomplish. In 2015, he became the first American late night host to film in Cuba since 1959. He spent four days in the country, meeting the locals and trying their customs. He repeated this international travel segment later that year as he accompanied his assistant on a trip to Armenia. Since then, he’s done shows in Germany, Mexico, Israel, and earlier this year in Haiti. Sometimes these visits were spurred on by nothing but an eagerness to visit a new place. Other times, the moment was personal, such as his assistant Sona’s return to her homeland and the trip to Korea he took with Steven Yeun. Then there are the political trips. An American going to Cuba cannot help but be a loaded message, even if most of the trip was a frothy holiday. After Donald Trump referred to Haiti as a ‘shithole country’, Conan immediately responded with a trip to the maligned country, where he immersed himself in the nation with a zeal that practically screamed ‘We’re sorry about our President’.


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Conan bills these trips as his show being ‘without borders’, and there’s certainly more to them that a mere slogan. He is an enthusiastic traveller, quick with a joke but able to judge whether or not the moment calls for it. He clamps down on the ‘obnoxious Yankee’ shtick for the most part and seems truly excited to learn new things about places he’s never been to before. He also understands the weight of what it means to be a rich American dude abroad in countries his nation frequently looks down on. While in Haiti, he encountered a group of people who were cynical about his presence because white guys with cameras in Haiti tends to mean bad portrayals of the nation. That’s why he gets unabashedly political, not necessarily by going full Colbert on the monologues (by contrast, Conan is actually pretty muted in its satirical stuff) but by talking to the effected individuals. He visits refugees, he talks about the Armenian genocide, he listens to those serving in the armed forces, and when Steven Yeun talks about the emotion of being a Korean-American in Korea, he keeps quiet and lets others do the talking. Anthony Bourdain does a similar, more culinary oriented travel show for CNN, but where he is the daring adventurer, Conan is more like the happy spectator who knows when to shut up.

Conan has been renewed by TBS through to 2022, and its host has carved out a fresh niche for himself amid tough competition. With strong online revenues and a young viewership that advertisers are keen to reach, O’Brien can stand (very) tall and proud of his achievements. He may not be the first name one thinks of in the current late night ecosystem, but eight years on from the NBC fiasco, he gets to be the host that The Tonight Show never would have allowed him to be.


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