Don’t Worry About Conan

He’s going to be great as the Tonight Show host.

Conan O'Brien. Click image to expand.
Conan O’Brien

Tomorrow night will mark Conan O’Brien’s final show as host of NBC’s Late Night. He’s moving to Los Angeles, where on June 1 he will take over as host of The Tonight Show. Many observers think he could be a failure in that new role—most notable among them the guys in charge of The Tonight Show. Months ago, NBC was reportedly faced with the possibility that Jay Leno might hand the reins to Conan only to launch a competitive program on another network at the same hour. NBC decided that wasn’t a battle they were confident that Conan would win. So the network offered Leno a 10 p.m. show, Leno accepted, and the crisis was averted—at the cost of indicating to advertisers, potential guests, and Conan himself that NBC executives kind of regret their decision to give him the big job. They aren’t the only ones who think that way. NBC’s most prominent critic is probably David Letterman, no friend of Leno’s, of course. “I’m not quite sure why NBC would do that after the job Jay has done for them,” he told Rolling Stone after it was announced that Conan would replace Leno. Even Conan’s biggest fans are worried that he’ll fail or, worse, dumb down his act in an attempt to imitate Leno’s lucrative inanity. In this scenario, success is a more horrifying possibility than failure.

I know about that last part because I’m one of those fans, a member of the demographic most likely to view Conan with love and affection: people who reached late-night-TV-watching age at around the same time Conan’s show started getting good, around 1995 or so. If you’re like me, you started watching Conan regularly at around age 13 or 14, and continued as a highly regular viewer for the next eight or nine years, your loyal fandom enabled by the fact that, as a teenager and then a college student, you had no problem staying up until 12:40 every night. (Fortunately, my turn toward marginally more responsible sleep/lifestyle choices has coincided with the rise of DVR.)

As a longtime fan of the Conester, I had reservations about whether his style would “translate” to the earlier time slot; I was also disturbed to see that someone who had achieved essentially complete freedom to showcase whatever kind of comedy and music that he saw fit—and made a lot of money doing so—would move to Los Angeles and presumably make all manner of horrible artistic compromises, filling the hour with vapid teen musicians and Chuckle Hut-level Viagra jokes. But I think I was wrong. After watching Conan’s last week of shows with a careful eye, I’ve become convinced: He should have no problem replacing Jay Leno and maintaining NBC’s record of late-night dominance. And he’s going to do it without abandoning the style that made him a success in the first place.

How do I know this? Well, I don’t, really. But I know that the reasons people think Conan will fail are erroneous. The prevailing theory is that his comedy—and indeed his personality—are simply too weird for the kind of mass audience NBC wants to draw to The Tonight Show. “As Conan Goes West, Where Will the Humor Go?” asks an indicative piece in Sunday’s BostonGlobe arguing that Conan will have to “graduate” from perpetual immaturity—from characters like the “Masturbating Bear,” a frequent guest—to succeed. But while it’s true that Conan’s brand of comedy is not exactly like Leno’s, I think this attitude both misses the point of what makes The Tonight Show successful and under-rates Conan’s ability to connect with a broad audience.

It’s worth remembering that The Tonight Show has sustained its dominance across many years, with many hosts who weren’t all necessarily alike. What’s remained the same is a generalized vibe—of familiarity and fun and all those things that Joe American is looking for after a long, stressful day working in the steel mill or providing steel-mill-management-consulting services. As my colleague Sam Anderson has noted, Leno’s greatest skill is his ability to maintain that enjoyable atmosphere in spite of material that could easily kill the mood—his schlocky, news-story-about-Arkansas, punch-line-about-someone-boning-their-cousin material.

Conan has that skill, too. A commonly overlooked fact of late-night programming is that every host—Conan very much included—fills airtime quite liberally with rim-shot humor about celebrities and stereotypes. What distinguishes the hosts is delivery, of the jokes themselves but also of the idle banter between them. Throughout his show, Conan maintains a running, good-natured self-critique which sometimes has the effect of making the audience laugh more when the jokes don’t land. His self-effacement isn’t quite the same as Leno’s unflagging enthusiasm, but it has a similar rapport-building effect.

It’s also a mistake to assume that Conan’s success has been built solely on a foundation of sophomoric non sequiturs. Granted, one weapon in his arsenal is the “machine-gun-wielding goose” joke. I refer, of course, to Conan’s occasional tendency to end sentences with “Isn’t that right, machine-gun wielding goose?”—whereupon a cutaway reveals an actual live goose sitting next to him in the studio with a machine gun hung from its neck. Here, the humor is created by the gap between the bizarre circumstances and the exaggerated calmness with which the surrounding observers deal with them.

Conan’s a master of this trick, but it’s not his only one. When he does deliver the rim-shot material, he puts his own spin on it. Take the recent example of A-Rod—a chestnut of a late-night target if there ever was one. Here’s a Jay Leno A-Rod joke: “The economy is so bad, New York Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez had to switch from steroids to Flintstone vitamins.” Now consider Conan’s bit, in which an apology-mad star admits to using steroids, but also to killing Tupac, and sleeping with Madonna, whom he refers to as an “old, leathery, fake-Jewish velociraptor.” References to Jurassic Park and one of the most popular musicians of the last two decades—he isn’t exactly going over the head of that mass audience here. But unlike Leno’s borsht-stained line, Conan’s joke has an element of inventiveness, of surprise. It’s this aspect of his approach, rather than some unbending devotion to absurdity, that Conan’s fans like about him.

As Conan has wrapped up his run in New York City, he’s been kicking off each show by running “best-of” segments. Four of the bits replayed last week were “remote” pieces filmed outside the studio. On Monday, it was his 2004 attempt to sell his car, a green 1992 Ford Taurus sedan; on Tuesday it was his 2005 trip to a Napa Valley winery; on Wednesday it was the 2001 hayride he enjoyed with Mr. T.; on Thursday, a 1996 trip to Houston that he took to try to find out who was watching his show, which the local affiliate at the time aired at 2:40 a.m. What all those bits have in common, aside from the fact that they’re incredibly funny and that they don’t involve bizarre characters or obscure references, is they show Conan engaging with strangers—some of whom have no idea who he is. I suspect that the choice of these particular segments may be a pointed move on his part, a response to his critics. Relax, everyone! Conan’s always been great at finding people who’ve never heard of him and making them laugh. If that doesn’t bode well for his tenure at The Tonight Show, I don’t know what does.