The set was low-tech, celebrities sent greetings, the Masturbating Bear returned, and Jay Leno’s name only came up once—but above all, says Lloyd Grove, Conan’s premiere featured a host thrilled to be back from late-night exile. Plus, watch the 6 funniest Conan moments.
“That was our show. That was fast!” Conan O’Brien marveled Monday night at the end of his debut show on TBS.
Fast and breezy—even though the hyperkinetic O’Brien’s breeziness arrived with the force of a gale.
Looking for all the world like a free man just sprung from maximum security, he actually seemed joyful to be creating his own show, Conan, on basic cable at 11 p.m. instead of trying to follow Jay Leno and fit himself into the venerable Tonight Show franchise on NBC.
He didn’t lean on desperate gimmicks or overwrought pyrotechnics; he was content for the most part to stick to his knitting. Yes, there was a witty opening video sending up his months of unemployment, featuring Larry King and Jon Hamm; a cameo appearance in a second short video by the Masturbating Bear, apparently permitted by NBC’s intellectual property attorneys to dispense lottery-ball winners from his nether parts; and a mocking series of promos featuring Ricky Gervais, who congratulated O’Brien in each one for a new job in a downwardly mobile career trajectory.
O’Brien was at home on a basic talk show set (massive wooden chocolate layer cake of a desk, nondescript chair for guests, and a long gray sofa for sidekick Andy Richter), and just was funny—or “Very Funny,” as the TBS slogan would have it. OK, there was also a movable 3-D moon hanging over the Pacific Ocean, a low-tech special effect that O’Brien and Richter managed to get some amusement out of. And the white-haired, red-aproned old lady who curates the Nutcracker Museum in Leavenworth, WA, was flown in to be Conan’s absolutely first guest and to be celebrated in a rousing anthem as “the most important person in history.”
Having kept the beard he grew during his nine months’ exile from television, the flame-haired O’Brien easily displayed his comedy chops, seemed to be having a good time bantering with inaugural guests Seth Rogen, who riffed on getting engaged and smoking marijuana, and Glee star Lea Michele, who looked lovely. For his finale, O’Brien took up his electric guitar to rock out with musical guest Jack White; more to the point, Jack White rocked out with Conan, who was really the featured performer.
Watch the opening of Conan's first TBS show, featuring Larry King and Jon Hamm.
“I know what you’re thinking: ‘Hey, it’s the guy from Twitter!’” O’Brien joked in his opening monologue.
“I know what you’re thinking: ‘Hey, it’s the guy from Twitter!’” O’Brien joked self-mockingly in his opening monologue, which contained scant reference to his previous tormenters at NBC.
• Watch: 6 Funniest Moments from Conan’s DebutThe only reference to Jay Leno—the giggling, big-jawed villain of the piece, lurking unseen in the psychic background—was in a commercial for a website, Bezzerwizzer.com. “Congratulations, Conan,” an announcer intoned. “Who’s the Bezzerwizzer now, Jay?”
If it didn’t make any sense, it really didn’t have to.
Conan O’Brien is back.
Conan takes shots at NBC in his opening monologue.
The Los Angeles Times' Robert Lloyd on Conan's " Godfather-style bang."
The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley on Conan's self-referential return.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.