overthinking the idiot box

October 31, 2005

What do late-night hosts from Carson to Conan have in common, beyond suits and good looks? Well, at some point they all say...

Play me to the desk
Conan the Destroyer

by Mike Celestino

The more I write for this website, the more I realize that the temporal nexus of my entertainment world was 1993. Think about it: The X-Files started, the quality of The Simpsons was inarguably at its apex, Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park was released in theaters (not just a major milestone in a constantly evolving cinematic landscape, but also a movie my geekier-than-ever adolescent self couldn't get enough of).

Coincidentally, 1993 also marked the end of David Letterman's tenure at NBC. Scorned and scarred by the events surrounding former compatriot Jay Leno's landing of The Tonight Show, Dave took his dog-and-pony show over to rival network CBS, leaving an hour-long slot available at 12:35 AM on NBC. Over the summer they ran Letterman reruns while America wondered who or what would fill the gap. Finally the word came down from on high, and my curiosity was piqued: Lorne Michaels had hand-picked Conan O'Brien, a former SNL writer and current (at the time) Simpsons scribe, to take over Late Night starting in September of that year. But aside from the admittedly impressive resume, Conan was a complete unknown with no standup experience and the odds stacked mightily against him. How long could this show possibly last? The guy was popular in a couple writers' rooms and suddenly he's fit to fill Dave's shoes? Wasn't there someone more well-known angling for the spot behind that desk? Of course there were: most notably Dana Carvey, Jon Stewart and Garry Shandling, all of whom either wound up passing on the deal or were actually overlooked in favor of this young Irish upstart with the unusual name. And in retrospect, considering the direction he's headed, the suits at the National Broadcasting Company couldn't have made a better choice.

Was Late Night with Conan O'Brien a cult hit from the very beginning? Probably not, but the fans were out there and I was one of them. The brand of absurdist humor exhibited in the earlier years of Conan's Late Night was undeniably unique and it spoke to my burgeoning irreverence, and the broad range of C-list actors, comedians and bands almost guaranteed that some of my more obscure pop-culture heroes would regularly surface from out of the woodwork as guests on the show. It would also be an oversight not to count the natural smarty-pants charisma and self-effacing charm of Conan himself, especially when bantering with sidekick Andy Richter or shamelessly flirting with the occasional supermodel, as a major part of the show's appeal.

It was obvious that Conan himself idolized Letterman: the four framed photographs on the wall of the new Late Night set included the first three hosts of the Tonight Show (Steve Allen, Jack Parr, and Johnny Carson) alongside Dave himself, perhaps Conan's subtle protest at the injustice of the now Leno-helmed Tonight Show.
It was evident early on that Conan's quick-wittedness would make even the most unappealing of interviews easier to stomach and that his well-educated (he's a Harvard graduate) background would prove him a formidable late-night champion for the intellectual set, despite the show's almost incongruent tendency towards infantile humor. Early reviews of the new Late Night were less than favorable but over time the mainstream began to accept Conan and Andy as suitable (if not necessarily superior) replacements for Letterman. In fact, many tried-and-true Letterman junkies found themselves switching over to NBC at 12:35 after Dave's new Late Show on CBS. It was obvious that Conan himself idolized Letterman: the four framed photographs on the wall of the new Late Night set included the first three hosts of the Tonight Show (Steve Allen, Jack Parr, and Johnny Carson) alongside Dave himself, perhaps Conan's subtle protest at the injustice of the now Leno-helmed Tonight Show. Regardless, Conan was slowly but surely beginning to establish himself at the forefront of late night's up-and-comers, eventually outlasting pretenders such as Chevy Chase, Tom Snyder, and even Magic Johnson.

In the summer of 2000, Andy Richter left Late Night to pursue a solo career in film and TV, including the short-lived and under-appreciated FOX sitcom Andy Richter Controls the Universe. Now this may come as blasphemy to those who refuse to find fault in the "Cone Zone," but in this writer's humble opinion Andy's absence (partnered with the departure of head writer Robert Smigel) has left an irreparable fault in the show's facade. Much of the spontaneity on display during the Andy years has vanished and now Conan is forced to make do conversing with the decidedly uninteresting band leader Max Weinberg, who regularly has extremely little to say. Also gone are some of the more unpredictable of the show's comedic devices (Anyone remember Time Travel Week?) that helped keep audience members on their toes. Perhaps the show has become too heavily reliant on recurring comedy pieces, be they hit (Actual Items, Clutch Cargo, In the Year 2000) or miss (If They Mated, Kids' Drawings,) to keep old-school Conan fans such as myself tuning on a nightly basis in recent years. Thankfully, Conan's agile sense of humor is enough to keep the show fresh, even though it's seemed a bit more by-the-book over the past half-decade.

Any decline in quality has apparently gone unnoticed by the general populace and the NBC execs themselves, as last year the network announced that Conan would become the fifth host of the Tonight Show, replacing Jay Leno as soon as the fall of 2009. This is an unmitigated victory for the once-unknown O'Brien, and a clever method of averting a second Late Night War on NBC's part. Of course, this coup came after rumors of several behind-the-scenes offers from CBS and Letterman's Worldwide Pants, but that's a subject for another column. Suffice it to say that Conan's rise to power was unlikely but not undeserved, considering the man's obvious talents. Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing how he handles the responsibility and how the earlier timeslot will affect the show's inimitable comedic style. Will middle America accept Conan O'Brien as the new heir to the Carson throne? Will Andy come back as sidekick if his solo career doesn't pan out? More importantly, will the Masturbating Bear show up? Only time will tell.

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