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The Middle Child of the Late-Night Wars

By Dustin Rowles | TV | November 9, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | November 9, 2010 |

Almost anyone with a reasonably intelligent sense of humor and a fondness for sophisticated low-brow comedy likes and appreciates Conan O’Brien. A late-night presence now for over 17 years, O’Brien has developed a massive following of people who “like” him. But liking Conan O’Brien and consistently tuning into his late-night shows are two different things. There was never anything on his resume or in his repertoire that drew the sort of fervor and adulation that Letterman and Jon Stewart command, and he’s always been a little too eggheaded to usurp the tuneless and brain-dead Leno audience. In the late night wars, where Jimmy Fallon is the Cousin Oliver, Conan O’Brien is the middle child, the ill-defined Gen Xer of the bunch.

While Conan’s ouster from “The Tonight Show” after less than a year may have represented the lowest point of his career, it may also be his salvation — in this new era of Conan, it may very well be what defines him. No longer is Conan the middle child; now, he’s the one who got dicked over, jilted by bumbling executives and a smarmy bully unwilling to relinquish control. It was the way he was let go from “The Tonight Show,” more than any other thing in his career, that finally stirred his base into action, that converted millions of people who “liked” him into what will hopefully be people that love him enough to tune into his new show on TBS on a nightly basis.

There’s reason to feel skeptical, however. For all that is likable about Conan, he’s never been a talk-show host who has been able to penetrate us emotionally. He’s smart and irreverent, but doesn’t engage with us as intellectually as do Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, nor is he given to the sort of personal anecdotes and occasional bouts of sincerity that Letterman has used over the years to allow us to invest into his show emotionally. Conan O’Brien is a comedian, and he’s a damn good one, but for the majority of late-night viewers, he’s a consistent second choice behind Letterman or Jon Stewart or even Leno on the other side of the humor equation.

Over on TBS, it’s clear from his first show that O’Brien is trying to capitalize on that also-ran status, and retain our sympathies with constant reminders of what brought him to basic cable. It works to an extent, and there’s certainly a lot of comedy to be mined from that situation, as the opening segment to his new show, as well as several monologue jokes that he landed successfully (“I decided to name my show ‘Conan,’ because it would be harder to replace me”), revealed. And while the flap with NBC has brought out his sincerity, there’s still a certain level of detachment in his earnestness. That approach has made for a consistently funny show over the last 17 years, yet for all the affection many have for Conan, it’s never been the sort of cozy, comfortable relationship to which it’s easy to fall asleep.

Maybe that changes with this new TBS show, and maybe he’ll invite us further in on basic cable, but the pilot episode doesn’t suggest as much. The set is familiar, but not quite the same — a basic cable version of his show over on NBC — and even the band has an ironically detached and generic name, “The Basic Cable Band,” a reminder that it has neither the personality of The Roots, Paul Schaeffer, or even Max Weinberg. Last night’s first guest, Seth Rogen, was perfect in the role for the way that he epitomizes Conan: A funny guy, a likable actor, but not quite anyone’s favorite.

Indeed, “Conan” has the same brand of off-beat Conan humor that’s carried him for nearly two decades, only now it’s been injected with a dose of wounded pride. Yet, he remains the same guy who’d rather make jokes than display sincerity. He doesn’t want us to feel sorry for him, and while that’s commendable, it doesn’t allow us to fully feel his pain, either. And so, for many of us, he remains a mostly a talk-show host we want to succeed, who we want to have on our televisions, and who we want to have available to us at all times.

But watch him? Well, absolutely! For the first week out of simple loyalty and as a loud fuck you to Jay Leno and NBC. But after that? Sure, when “The Daily Show” is in repeats.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.