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Conan O'Brien: The Comeback Kid

By Joe Bonilla
On November 18, 2010

     Fans of Conan O'Brien have been anxiously awaiting his return to late night ever since his well-documented departure from "The Tonight Show" earlier this year. They were rewarded for their patience at 11 p.m. on November 8 on TBS.

   Now, being one of UAlbany's three late night hosts (alongside WCDB's Ethan Ullman and ATV's Mike Russell), I had a particular interest in seeing this first episode. Conan's always been the standard, especially for me (as well as a little bit of Letterman, but absolutely not the "Big Jaw Freak" Leno), since I do a show in which we attempt to do comedy (sometimes it works, other times we trip over a bunch of wires and wear wrinkled jackets).  

   Conan on TBS–it still sounds weird. Never, in a million years, would I have thought that (1) he'd ever leave NBC and (2) go to TBS of all places. TBS attempts to bill itself as "Very Funny"–yet still gives a contract to George Lopez. The first idea for places for Conan to go after leaving NBC was Fox, naturally–still a network, strong lead-ins, how could you go wrong? Well, affiliates' preferences from the Midwest who wanted to keep the "Seinfeld" reruns going kept that from happening. After Fox was a no-go, maybe Comedy Central after "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" – but that would have been post-midnight, something that Conan was adamantly against going back to.  

   So in April, TBS comes around, sees the playing ground and makes a deal to have Conan at 11 p.m. and to move "Lopez Tonight" to midnight. Up to this point, Lopez's ratings had been quite good by TBS standards. After thinking about it, the move to TBS made sense for Conan. First off, on basic cable–even with its own standards and practices–comedians can do quite a bit more than is possible even at 12:35 a.m. on network television. Secondly, there was no legacy to upkeep, no standard to live up to, no major market ratings to keep up with against Letterman. On TBS, Conan could live up to the station's slogan.  

   And on November 8, the show felt like Conan's old "Late Night" rather than "The Tonight Show," which was a big sigh of relief. I'm not going to sugarcoat this and I'm sure some of you will agree –"Tonight Show" Conan (until NBC gave him the boot) was watered-down, punkish, and downright nearing the filth known as Leno. He made jokes that were just so on the nose about every celebrity in Los Angeles–it just wasn't right.  

   On TBS, Conan mixed "Late Night" with his recent cross-country "Legally Prohibited from Television" tour – very much interactive, but with the same irreverence fans know and love. The best part and highlight of the show (even though you knew it was coming) was the return of the Masturbating Bear, now working for an NBC affiliate for their evening lottery numbers.  

   For years now, cable has been eroding at the nature at ratings of network late night–Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, most notably, have recently beaten both Letterman and Leno in a number of key demographics, showing the tide has now turned. Conan doesn't have to have network numbers to be a success–he just has to be funny.

 


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