The difference between the Conan O'Brien of Late Night with Conan O'Brien and the Conan O'Brien of Conan could be seen in his treatment of a little old lady with a love of nutcrackers.
Itwas classic Conan to make Arlene Wagner, curator of Leavenworth'sNutcracker museum, the first guest on his new show. But then she walkedthrough, without actually sitting down and having a conversation withhim.
And then he interviewed with superstar Seth Rogen, his"second first guest." They spoke of Generic Talk Show Anecdotes. That'sfine. It was funny enough. But it wasn't Conan's strength. And itcertainly wasn't worth the hype and exultation.
The oldConan would have had the guts — or the lack of interested guests — tospend at least five minutes talking nutcrackers. He was a man ofabsurdity, odd guests, and weird humor. He wasn't afraid to waste ourtime. Heck, he had a sketch called "Frankenstein wastes a minute ofour time" wherein Frankenstein's monster would waste a minute of ourtime.
Thisisn't our official review of Conan O'Brien's newshow. That's coming two weeks later, after Conan can truly settle inhis rhythms. But right now, we're seeing a problem: Conan is a paradox.His lack of success is what makes him succeed; his success is a path tocreative failure. The more successful he gets, the more he loses thelimitation thatfueled his off-kilter comic genius.
If brevity is the soul of wit, limitation is the soul of creativity. Hitchcock's greatness came, in many ways, because of the Production Code, and Jaws never would have been as suspenseful without the technical troubles with the shark. Success, in television, is often the enemy of innovation. Don't want to get too weird — that might ruin our success.
Conan flourishes on the edge of failure. Conan thrives as underdog. The best days of the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien show were the final ones. He excels at self-deprecation, at doing crazy go-for-broke stunts like it's the last time he'll ever be on TV.
Late Night's genius, to paraphrase the AV Club's Nathan Rabin, was that the viewer felt like Conan was getting away withsomething. Like nobody was watching, so he could just goof off. Now,everybody is watching. And thus, Conan's self-deprecating jokes fallflat. He's not the unwatched underdog: He's the brand name.
As everyone can see now, Conan won.Hehas a more loyal following than ever. Jay's ratings are floundering, ashe began to not only lose to where Conan was a yearearlier, but lose to Letterman.
Leno got the Tonight Show. But Conan got the last laugh. And that's the thing true comedians care about. He has his own show with thefreedom he craves. So when is he going to use it?
Conan's first episode was amiable. It was enjoyable. But we don't watch Conan for "amiable." That's Leno's territory. Conan has a perfect platform for a comedian. He can truly bend, break and then reforge ofthe rules of late-night comedy. I believe there's a part of him thatwants to. And this time, there's no excuse.
Right now, the funniest talk show host ontelevision isn't Conan O'Brien. It's Jon Stewart. Rightnow, the gutsiest, most absurd talk show host on television isn't ConanO'Brien: It's Craig Ferguson (who does things like putting on a castusing all-puppet shows).
But Conan can reclaim the goofy, weird-guy mantle. He needs to go odd. He needs to go gutsy.
He needs to realize that his talk-show brilliance isn't found with charming interviews with Scarlett Johannson or Glee cast members or musical superfans. It's found with Chuck Norris levers and wax Tom Cruises and goofy dances and obscene wildlife.
And it's found with the Arlene Wagners of the world, not the Seth Rogens.