The early minutes of Conan (TBS, weeknights at 11 p.m. ET)—a cold open imagining “last season on Conan“—were an expressionistic depiction of the slings and arrows suffered by the talk-show host since he fatefully sneered at NBC’s plan to move his Tonight Show to 12:05 a.m. What was the worst they could do to him? Well, they could arrange for a phalanx of thugs to assail him with Tommy guns, as if he were Sonny Corleone ambushed at the toll booth. Upon recovering from the shooting, our hero failed at new careers as a Burger King cashier and as a party clown specializing in topical humor, and he didn’t even get a second interview at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. I will venture that Jon Hamm is 5 percent overexposed at this moment, but it gave a tickle to see Don Draper disdainfully tossing Conan away from his desk: “You have absolutely no advertising experience. Plus, it’s 1965, and you’re 2 years old.”
In the segment, the host was on the ledge when he got the call telling him that he could leap down to basic cable, an indignity he embraced. The Tonight debacle has inspired Conan to play up his self-depreciating side, and he does not endure humiliation so much as he capitulates to it. He doesn’t take pity on himself, but he’ll humbly take ours if there’s any to spare. Sidekick Andy Richter tried on a Halloween mask in Conan’s image, an actual retail product labeled “ex-talk-show host”: “Inside it smells like tears,” Richter said.
With the exception of an onanistic (Conanistic?) cameo by the Masturbating Bear, this first show was mild, purposely modest, agreeably tentative. I thought of the paragraph in Norman Mailer’s Esquire profile of Madonna where the writer jeered too hard at David Letterman: “At 11:30, when his audience is ready for a mild pleasure before bed, Letterman serves as their Ovaltine—a little flavor, a lot of pablum—and the implicit promise that nothing serious is going to take place. He will not even be too funny. That could stir the blood and inspire thoughts of going out for a drink. Johnny Carson, mean as his own minted embodiment of Waspitude, used, at least, to give audiences his sharp sense—whether you agreed with him or not—of what constituted proper social deportment. Letterman, on an average night, would not be caught dead offering one indication of how to conduct your life. Keep it meaningless and we’ll all get along.”
I got an e-mail from a friend wondering if the quality of the guest list was an extension of the TBS basic-cable joke. His guests, though fine artists and real stars, did not bowl us over. Seth Rogen promoted a movie that’s not out until next year. Lea Michele, famous as Rachel Berry on Glee, tripped a certain alarm bell as only a dedicated performer can. I get that same vibe that, in the matter of calculated grins and cruel ambition, there’s not a significant distance between her and her character. (See also Reese Witherspoon and Tracy Flick.) In struggling to remember what they talked about—talked is almost too strong a word—I have realized that Conan did not go goofy for her. He used to affect to drool over pretty actresses. He now directs his insecurities elsewhere. Jack White appeared. Conan took off his tie and loosened his top button—would it kill him to wear a v-neck undershirt?—and grabbed a guitar and played along. They had chemistry, though I was struck by the absence of homoerotic energy so often generated when two male vocalists share a microphone.
The set is handsome. The backdrop offers an oceanscape, as if we are invited to enjoy that grand feeling you get when you look to the west. A huge moon to shoot for hangs above the horizon. But the show’s most significant bit of design is its logo, where the host’s orange hair serving as a signature and signal. Losing a job, Conan found iconicity.