“Welcome to my second annual first show.” If the first few episodes of Conan O’Brien’s new show are any indication, it’s clear that he is not ready to forget about his recent spat with NBC anytime soon. But with all the media attention surrounding him recently, perhaps it’s not surprising.
After hosting NBC’s Late Night for 16 years, O’Brien inherited The Tonight Show when the previous host Jay Leno stepped down in 2009. However, after O’Brien and Leno (who continued on the network with his own primetime talk show) both floundered in the ratings, NBC introduced a plan to restructure their schedule.
The plan proposed that Leno would move his 10 p.m. show back to The Tonight Show’s usual 11:30 timeslot. Meanwhile, the network planned to bump O’Brien (who would keep The Tonight Show title) a half hour later to midnight.
All this came a mere seven months after O’Brien started his new hosting job at The Tonight Show.
Unhappy with deal, O’Brien split from the network. In the final weeks of his short-lived Tonight Show, O’Brien continuously bashed the network. He created outlandish skits with the supposed purpose of costing NBC as much money as possible. The final episode aired on January 22, 2010.
In the nine months since then, O’Brien has headlined his own summer tour, acquired nearly 2,000,000 Twitter followers, and rebooted his television show on basic cable. His new show, simply titled Conan, premiered last Monday.
With his first monologue, O’Brien took jabs at not only NBC, but also at his new home, TBS. (The show airs on Comedy and CTV in Canada). “I’m already number one in TBS’s key demographic—people who can’t afford HBO,” he joked.
But it turned out that O’Brien wasn’t far off with his pronouncement of being number one. The show’s premiere garnered impressive ratings. In the United States, Conan pulled in 4,150,000 viewers on its first night, beating timeslot competitors Leno and David Letterman. (Conan airs at 11:00 p.m. in the United States, but at 12:00 and 1:00 a.m. in Canada.) His ratings dropped significantly for the following three nights, but O’Brien still remains strong among younger viewers.
His first week of shows included guests such as Tom Hanks (who popularized O’Brien’s “Coco” nickname the last time he was on his show), Michael Cera, Jon Hamm, Seth Rogan, and Glee’s Lea Michele. On the premiere, Jack White performed a cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” with O’Brien. White and O’Brien are close friends, and considering that The White Stripes’ only live performance since 2007 was on the finale of O’Brien’s Tonight Show, it seemed like an appropriate choice.
While the first two episodes were heavy on self-conscious humour, it seems like O’Brien has quickly settled back into his usual late-night routine. The biggest change from O’Brien’s previous show to Conan is probably that sidekick Andy Richter now joins O’Brien on the couch for the whole show (as he did when he was originally on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in the 90s). With his previous band intact (minus drummer Max Weinberg) and the return of the “Masturbating Bear” character in the first episode, the show seems familiar, in a very good way.
With all of the media coverage surrounding the so-called “Late-Night Wars” (with many media outlets pitting O’Brien against Leno), Conan lacks some of the shambolic charm of his original Late Night show.
Before his spat with NBC, O’Brien and his show seemed more laid-back and personal. Now, O’Brien has something to prove, and though he may be slightly more polished and self-aware, it’s still the same Conan O’Brien.