Conan: Standing Tall but Not Hitting Heights
By Tom Shales, Washington Post
columnist, in his “Shales On TV” Column, Tuesday, August 25, 2009
One worrisome thing about "The Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien is that the people who put it together don't appear to be worried. Maybe they're putting up a brave front or a happy face, but from the way they talk, you'd almost think the ratings were ducky.
When I dropped by during a recent trip to Los Angeles, life backstage at O'Brien's lavishly outfitted new studio reflected the standard pandemonium that comes with getting any TV show on the air. O'Brien flew by the greenroom with his tie untied and his shirt untucked, looking his boyish, pasty and anemic self. A happy sort of chaos prevailed in what might be called The Cone-Zone.
When I offered my congratulations, however, I got a more rueful than giddy smile. "I'm not sure congratulations are in order," he said, but good-naturedly. In fact, he is to be congratulated for how the show has been going -- it's nothing if not lively and laugh-packed -- but not, of course and alas, for how it's been doing in the ratings. After a walloping good start in June, the ratings plunged into the fruit cellar. Now, it's typical for O'Brien's NBC show to come in third, after CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman" and ABC's war-horsy "Nightline."
The situation is complicated by the fact that O'Brien has long been an admirer of the persnickety Letterman's; Dave even made an appearance on O'Brien's "Late Night" show long after Dave had gone to CBS. "Late Night" was, of course, Letterman's old stamping ground, and what influential stamping it was. Letterman's picture was posted on a wall of O'Brien's New York set, near late-night comedy gods Johnny Carson and Jack Paar.
Letterman "changed" when he went from 12:35 a.m. to 11:35 p.m., and O'Brien changed, too. He tidied up. The show is less bizarre-o, the comedy less eclectic and surreal. The props and costumes and even the graphics are slicker and have less of a homemade feel. Some of this is inevitable; there are many more viewers to please an hour earlier, and they are less likely to find self-mocking tackiness to be cute and amusing.
The obvious dilemma: You change too much, you're no longer Conan and you alienate your fan base. Change too little and older viewers may find the show too cuckoo and silly.
Anyone who's a fan of both comics, and it's easy to be just that, has a hard time deciding not only which to watch but also whom to root for. Both shows can succeed -- there are plenty of viewers to go around, and a great show will lure back expatriates who've wandered off to cable or to recordings they've made of prime-time shows they missed. Still, it's hard to conceive of any race without a loser.
If only they could take turns -- Letterman winning one week, O'Brien the next. NBC always says that O'Brien has the best demographics in late night, a solid following of viewers in the 18-to-34 range, but that's victory with an asterisk. Scorekeepers still like as many bodies as possible, even though in Madison Avenue's view if you're over 55, you might as well be dead.
Television, thou cruel mistress! O'Brien has just returned from a week's vacation during which, his producer Jeff Ross insists, little tinkering needed to be done and scant thought given to changes. That doesn't sound realistic, but the worst thing to do would be to go into panic mode (that's what network executives do). As Jay Leno himself recently noted, he had a rough time in the ratings during his first year as well, then went on to reign supreme
for 16 years.
What, if anything, is Conan doing wrong? One of Leno's producers helped cure Leno's weak early ratings by warming him up -- that is, bringing the host and the studio audience physically closer to each other, and introducing the ridiculously corny gimmick of having Jay shake hands with a gaggle of pre-selected audience members while the rest of the crowd joined in a strangely mandatory standing ovation.
O'Brien might need warming up, too. He looks oddly lonely out on that enormous set with bandleader Max Weinberg and sidekick Andy Richter each so far away (though Johnny Carson wasn't much closer to Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen).
Television is a matrix of symbols; maybe O'Brien's new surroundings are antithetical to comedy. NBC built O'Brien a kind of imperial palace on the soundstage of Universal, the movie studio owned by the network. To make the set look less vast and cold, a round, curtained "performance area" was installed in the middle. The circular space suggests the center ring at a circus and, indeed, an elephant looked at home there when trotted out for the punch line of a sketch not long ago.
Maybe there is too much prepared comedy on the show and not enough that is impromptu, or at least seemingly impromptu. O'Brien is a great ad-libber but seems to be clinging to scripts; late-night audiences still like to think the shows are live and spontaneous. In the old days, a Jack Paar monologue would be followed by a succession of guests who entertained the host as well as the audience by saying unexpected and witty things. Carson was rightly celebrated for the generous way he appreciated the work of other artists, especially comics, and it always appeared spontaneous.
O'Brien, however, apparently dislikes the unexpected. He wants interviews to go exactly as planned (and rehearsed, with a segment producer playing Conan's role) and he wants to interrupt often with jokes, ad-libbed and otherwise. This gives the unfortunate impression that he fears letting the spotlight drift away from him because he thinks it might not come back; that people will forget whose show it is.
Not so, as Carson, Paar, Steve Allen and Leno all knew. The host gets credit for funny things that his guests do; it's just the way of the talk-show world. The host can lend his audience to guests and, if strong enough as the central figure, need have no fears about getting them back.
Reviewing O'Brien's premiere in June, I deplored the absence
of a topical monologue -- which means I will sound nuttily inconsistent by saying his monologue as it has evolved is too topical and, especially, too political. Carson seasoned the monologue with jokes about pop culture, entertainment, Hollywood gossip, the ying and yang and warp and woof of our daily mass-mediated lives, plus a few standards -- mother-in-law jokes, jokes about drunks, tweaks of NBC management. Every joke doesn't have to be torn from the headlines.
O'Brien is a master of self-deprecating humor and charmingly plays the classic boobus Americanus -- a vulgarian, even a bumpkin, given to inappropriate zeal and a kind of mock-caddishness that Bob Hope made a great comic's pose; the braggart who caves at the first sign of trouble, the self-styled ladies' man who's scared of sex. O'Brien plays it well. Even so, some of his taped comedy bits (man-on-the-street sketches shot around Hollywood) have seemed poorly timed and overlong.
For all the celebrated gorgeousness of O'Brien's set, it's situated on what is basically a quiet little corner of the Universal lot. It's tucked away. This might actually affect the tenor of the show. When O'Brien's "Late Night" originated from Rockefeller Center in New York, his show, like Letterman's, seemed to spring from the epicenter of urban excitement. Now O'Brien seems to be reporting in from some remote outpost; it's a place that no one will happen upon, so cameos from big-time stars seem unlikely.
O'Brien's guests have been less lustrous than Letterman's (an appearance by "American Idol's" Ryan Seacrest was an outright disaster), but show sources attribute that to the August celebrity drought and stars fleeing Los Angeles on vacation.
In one respect, O'Brien's worries are likely to get worse -- at least when Leno returns to TV
in a nightly prime-time show at 10. Leno traditionally does a very good monologue and may chew up so much material that O'Brien will be left with mere scraps and bones to gnaw upon. There are those who think it was folly for NBC to oust Leno and move O'Brien in the first place, but the only alternative was to lose O'Brien to a competing network -- and pay him up to $45 million over the coming years.
For now, though, no one should be apoplectic about O'Brien's ratings. He's in much better shape than Leno was at the beginning, and Carson didn't really become the master of his domain -- in terms of asserting his own identity -- until a few years into his heroic three-decade run. There've already been enough wild, socko segments on the new "Tonight Show" to fill a 90-minute "Best of Conan" special. But there's still the nagging sensation that we aren't really seeing his best -- at least not yet.http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn...402199_pf.html