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Conan O'Brien at Radio City: Good, but ...
The last full measure of devotion for a late night TV fan, specifically a Conan O’Brien one, is to get to Radio City, stand in line under a warm June sky, pay a hundred bucks for a ticket and, by the way and in no way incidental to your devotion, bring along your girlfriend too (who didn't really watch in college, but what the heck - this is about love after all.)
Bottom line: Good, energetic, fun...but fans had heard or seen much of this before. YouTube, the press, blogs, and a million tweets have drained the show of any surprises. There were a couple last night - one named Steve, another Jon.
And so went the crowd last night, through the gilded doors of America’s most (well) guided theater in search of their hero, also gilded, in a sense, but more like, say, orange.
Conan O'Brien's return to New York after one very ill fated year at "Tonight" was attended well and before we get to the specifics of the show.... Quickly, the crowd - for what is it that makes so many true believers after the kind of year that Conan had turn in big numbers to a sold out show and still not wonder what they were doing there? Shared values, humor, age, educational attainment, race, sex, class and sixteen happy years together on TV or in front of TV, as were no doubt many people at Radio City last night for the last leg of the tour before it heads to Boston and then oblivion. Unfortunately, there clearly weren't enough of them around the country to sustain a run at "Tonight" (There were a few older 50-plus fans last night in attendance, but most of their cohort was back home waiting for Jay, at 11:35.)
The big news last night had less to do with Conan and more to do with the special guests: Stephen Colbert trotted on stage just past mid point and got a huge ovation. Minutes later who else should come out from the back of the room to an even bigger ovation was none other than Jon Stewart, dressed in red sequined shirt and jeans - the Mexican Jon Stewart, said Co. The ovation was even bigger - the sort if full throated and leap to your feet passion reserved for cultural heroes who still have a show.
This being New York, and Radio City, Conan would have been remiss, comically speaking, in not mentioning proximity to his former employer - "two hundred feet away from NBC headquarters...sit back and enjoy an incredibly bizarre evening." His staff, he explained, had made a minor adjustment to the famous NBC marquee sign on 49th street: Flash to a giant screen (there were three of them, and the biggest was dead center) with the letters TBS where the letters NBC normally would be.
NBC wasn't even touched last; there were a few jokes so listless or old ("the ninth hour of 'Today,' for example) that the applause was more polite than genuine. Even the oft-mentioned lawyers - who the hell are these "lawyers" other than by this point tepid comic props - couldn't have complained. The blunt simple fact is that as comedy material, NBC doesn't even rate anymore. It’s like making jokes about George W. Bush. Every one that Conan attempted felt listless, tinny, without sting or bite.
At the beginning of show, following a sharp well played rousing number by the "Late Night" - then- "Tonight Show" band, Conan strode out (he's a strider, not given to baby steps). You instantly realized that every sartorial detail, from the beard down to the loafers, was a complete repudiation of his past, as if to say - "all that stuff I used to wear was just part of the NBC sanctioned act. This, my friends is the real me." The Real Me or the non-NBC Me was jauntier, more energetic, far more comfortable in front of a large adoring crowd than the old self deprecating Conan would have been. He's a better physical comedian than I ever thought him to be, if last night was an indication.
The show itself was almost a TV show absent the guests and couch. (He opened with a longish monologue capped with the five stages of grief he went through after "Tonight" - like, recognition of the fact that other people like Kim Kardashian still have a show. Point being: losing a show isn't so bad if you get to do THIS. There was one brief jab at Leno - a sort of mocking high-pitched snatch of gibberish that Conan insisted was his imitation of Ludacris.
There were many pre-set pieces - some lifted from the original show, and a handful of songs, all performed by Conan who yes sings serviceably and works the lead guitar with the intense dedication of a wannabe rocker who never much got beyond garage band proficiency.
There were walk-ons to assist in the famed "lever" - pull that sucker and reveal another inane "Walker Texas Ranger" clip. Some Conan homies, Bill Hader, John Krasinski and Paul Rudd did that peculiar honor. (Triumph the Comic Insult dog had a taped bit disparaging New York though in spots where specific place names were to go, a voiceover was dubbed in. References to Fire Island, Sabaro's and Anderson Cooper were made. None would have relished these specific shout outs. The masturbating bear was transformed to a self-pleasuring panda, etc, .
As mentioned Colbert wandered out for the night's biggest laughs as he delivered a withering denunciation of feckless faithless Conan for abandoning New York for Hollywood. "I am New York city's Stephen Colbert - I heard you slinked back to town." A challenge was then issued - a danceoff! - settled, sort of, moments later by Stewart.
How was the show? In general good - brisk, clean, energetic and marred by one major problem - familiarity. Playing to that crowd, Conan's crowd, he ran the risk of fronting material that most had already seen on YouTube or read about on Twitter. And anyone who wants to see this show just needs a computer and Internet hookup. As a result, the material was dated and in parts felt ancient. Why reuse the same jokes and bits that you used in Wichita or Spokane a couple of months before - especially when “Tonight” and “Late Night” had fresh material every night? Simple answer - Conan doesn't have a writing or production staff any longer.
In a sense that was the only disappointment - the familiarity of it all when this is New York and why oh why Coco couldn't you have cooked up something fresh, exciting or at least different for the greatest insomniac of a city in the world that you found yourself back in for the first time in what seemed like a decade? He closed with a gracious thanks to New York and the fans who “saved my ass” with all their tweets and blogs and otherwise general insistence that NBC had fracked up. Most fans were grateful to him too. So, the material was out there. So, he had told the six or seven or how ever many stages of grief joke before. So, Triumph had run the same schtick and Walker had done the same stupid clip, and on and on. Conan was here. All's well. Next stop…basic cable! A guarantee – the material will be fresh then.