Let me preface this semi-review by saying that it’s impossible to assess a show like The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien by watching one episode. People did this with Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and I felt that it was completely unfair (although word is that he never really improved). Late night shows, that is, shows that air five days a week, are more suited to judge as a whole rather than by examining a single hour-long episode. That said, it was easy to see from the hour I was able to spend at a test show for Late Night that Conan will be just as funny, odd, and irreverent as ever.
I think it’s best to start with the set (you can check out pictures of the new set at NBC.com). Conan’s new set is a gorgeous array of shades of blue with a diorama-like background of the city of Los Angeles right behind the big man’s desk. What I noticed first was that Conan’s desk was no longer on the right side of the stage (if viewing from the audience); instead, Conan’s desk now sits on the left side of the stage with Max Weinberg and the “Tonight Show Band” playing their hearts out on the right side. In the middle, you have the inevitable curtain.
As for the show, it’s exactly what you’d expect from Conan on a bigger, more mainstream show. It’s a little more refined, a little less out there, but in no way is it pandering to the senior citizen crowd that infamously comes with the 11:30 timeslot (which comes into play a little later in the show).
A big theme that will certainly come with the show are Conan’s efforts to find his own niche in Los Angeles. His monologue was filled to the brim with jokes about his new home city, including a crack about the Manny Ramirez incident, how everyone, even homeless people are beautiful, and a quick scene of the deadly LA traffic that included a dachshund dressed in traditional Jewish attire taking over a fake freeway full of toy cars as he ate a cake that said “Mazel Tov” on it. Conan also showed the audience a hilarious segment with the premise of him wanting to take a shopping spree on NBC’s dime on the popular Rodeo Dr. Yet, NBC could not afford the trip and instead, sent him to Rodeo Rd. in the Crenshaw District. Suffice to say, it’s a bit less classy.
The show continued with Conan stating that he had installed artificial intelligence into his stage like on Knight Rider. Lights above the curtain flashed different colors and the stage began to talk just like KITT from the popular show. Conan and the stage exchanged banter, with the stage often throwing low shots at Conan.
The first desk segment was titled “Celebrity Misquotes” and had Conan reading off real quotes from philosophers and scientists, only to show how celebrities have ruined them (fictionally, of course). Conan’s victims included Ryan Seacrest, George W. Bush, and several others.
I won’t talk too much about the guests, as they were what you’d expect from a talk show interview. The first guest was Weeds co-star Kevin Nealon. Conan and Kevin chatted, with Kevin coming off as kind of an oddball with really random stories to tell. The second guest was Paget Brewster, whom I was completely unaware of, but apparently she’s a star on Criminal Minds. She was quite the entertaining guest, though, as she went on a long diatribe about the manner in which she deals with her paranoia (by buying a bunch of ridiculous security contraptions for her house like a trap door behind a large painting).
A couple other elements of the show that people may be wondering about are Andy Richter and Max Weinberg and The Tonight Show Band. As far as Andy Richter goes, Conan was very smart about incorporating Andy back into the show without having to share the spotlight with him. With Richter in the announcer’s seat, Conan is able to have full control of the show and its comedy, while still being able to go back and forth with Richter whenever he pleases. Richter stands behind a pedestal right in front of the audience with a camera on him throughout the show, making it easy for Conan to ask Richter’s opinion on something but not making him feel obligated to constantly work him into the show.
The Max Weinberg 7 has been transported to Los Angeles with Conan completely intact but with a new name: The Tonight Show Band. They are as tight as ever, with Labamba returning on the brass and Jimmy Vivino on guitar. Whether or not the band will remain an integral part of the comedy is yet to be seen, but I imagine they will. Max and Conan’s awkward relationship is one of the best parts of the show, especially in contrast to the ridiculous and uninteresting chitchat that goes on between other hosts and their bandleaders.
After all was said and done, Conan showed us one more segment that he said would likely be shown the first week of his tenure. In the segment, Conan hired an award-winning makeup artist to transform his look to allow him to proctor a focus group. The group would bring together seniors citizens to get their opinions on The Late Show with Conan O’Brien. The segment is classic self-deprecating Conan and has to be seen to be believed. I would hate to ruin it for you. All I’ll say is that it’s hilarious, eye opening and makes one understand why NBC decided to keep Leno around in the 10:00 spot.
There is little to worry about, Conan hasn’t lost his sense of humor in the move to The Tonight Show. Even if he did have to lose over-the-top gags like The Masterbating Bear, from what I saw Conan is still at the top of his game. I’ve always seen Conan’s show as a satire of late night, not necessarily a slap in the face but more of an ironic ode (much like the relationship that Edgar Wright’s movies have with their respective genres). Conan is deeply in love with his job but has the smarts and talent to mock it. As far as I can tell, that will follow him to his new time slot. Will he lose seniors? Yes. But will his cult of twenty-somethings (which are like gold to networks) follow him and continue to grow? It’d be impossible to suggest otherwise.