Half a decade has passed since NBC canned Conan O’Brien as the host of The Tonight Show after 145 episodes, bringing his network career to an abrupt and inglorious end. Before Tonight, O’Brien presided over 2,700-odd installments of sophisticated derangement as Dave Letterman’s replacement on Late Night, where recurring sketches such as the Masturbating Bear and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog brightened the wee hours with their college-boy absurdism. His job was to tend the flame of postmodern nonsense Letterman had lit, his brand to upend banality.
For a while, his dismissal rendered him a folk hero. Crowds of righteous fans wore T-shirts bearing his solemn face and blaring his nickname, Coco, in letters colored to match the ginger quiff of his hair. After a workaholic’s season in the wilderness—a live act called the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour—O’Brien landed at TBS, with Conan.
Five years later, his audience is healthy; the show sometimes draws more young viewers than Letterman or Jimmy Kimmel. There have been glimmers of cultural relevance: For instance, O’Brien made news in March by jaunting to Havana for a special Conan in Cuba. But to a certain segment of the late-night audience—a demographic once integral to his cult—O’Brien made this news only by appearing on The Daily Show to promote it. “I’m With Coco” once seemed less like a marketing slogan than a rallying cry. But now, as the fervor ignited by his dismissal from Tonight has waned, O’Brien has receded from the limelight. His bits rarely light up the morning blog circuit. He has in some sense been banished to Burbank, two decades after the departure of its eminence. So I followed him there, tuning into to TBS for a few weeks to see how his act has changed.
Four nights a week, O’Brien hits the stage strutting, in a choreographed display of cutely demented peacocking. Sidekick Andy Richter belts an introduction. A stagehand draws shimmering curtains. O’Brien struts out, swings index fingers like a gunslinger, mingles performative swagger with bowing humility, administers a sizzling twist to his left nipple. He quiets the crowd to deliver a topical monologue indistinguishable from anyone else’s, as if he were an unusually talented cog in a generic machine.
Conan is not what you would call an A-list destination. In April, Jimmy Fallon on Tonight shared his polished grin with guests including Louis C.K., Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Madonna, Chris Pratt, Pharrell Williams, Ricky Gervais, Russell Crowe, Blake Lively, and Michelle Obama. Over the same stretch of time, O’Brien also welcomed Gervais, and his band, Jimmy Vivino’s Basic Cable Band, composed a limp ditty about an audience member’s slight resemblance to Pratt. Sure, there were Kristen Stewart, Amy Schumer, and Ice Cube—all good gets—but from there it’s a bit of a fall off to seat Billy Gardell, David Mizejewski, and Timothy Olyphant on one’s couch as the night’s first guest.
As an interviewer, O’Brien is different, too, in a way that combines a handsome self-restraint and self-enforced semblance of normalcy, as if he’s matured into a streamlined knockoff of his old, weird self. It was not long ago, for instance, that he refused to spare viewers the embarrassment of going gooey for a pretty face. He would purr and pant and melt for female actors, thickly dramatizing the awkwardness of a writers’-room refugee selected to escort a starlet. But we’re getting off easy these days: O’Brien admires Rosario Dawson’s skirt—“It looks like its got candy on it or something,” makes a mere few gorging growls to approximate noshing upon it, and then gets on with things.
More telling than the relative wattage of the celebrities O’Brien’s bookers secure is the presence of government and policy types among their ranks. Elizabeth Warren and Fareed Zakaria have appeared in recent weeks, eliciting from the host a dutiful kind of attention. The proceedings have little in common with the loose-jointed, readily irreverent atmosphere cultivated by Stewart and Colbert and bear only an incidental relationship to the old school of “humanizing” politicians with a softball deskside chat. Even a guest possessing the gruff, unprocessed charm of Barney Frank can only do so much to spice up the overcooked broccoli served by the host himself, whose respectful nods indicate not devoted engagement but the genial discharge of an obligation. The atmosphere is dutiful, and the air leaves the room.
Which brings us to the gags and sketches that are the soul of late-night comedy—the prankishness of Kimmel, the frat-house jamboree of Fallon, the Stupid Pet Tricks that once upon a time defined Letterman’s claim to something like subversion. What flavor of farcical cream tops the pies O’Brien flings these days? One night, he and Richter riffed on an ecclesiastic news item and giggled at the word bishopric, the setup for the bit being their juvenile tittering at the word’s naughty homophone, the payoff being that a vengeful God destroyed the host’s desk with a lightning bolt. Another night, O’Brien was baffled by a string of non sequiturs issuing from Richter’s mouth, and a producer explained that a “rerun Andy” was appearing in the stead of the real one, who was at the dentist, and then to avert disaster “real Andy” turned up still in his dental bib to murder the “rerun Andy” with a rifle. A common complaint is that to explain humor is to kill it, but that is scarcely possible with jokes of this ilk, which defy explanation and are dead on arrival. Conan regularly proceeds as if Conan himself were the payoff. The joker himself has become the whole joke.
The Conan of Late Night and The Tonight Show was wonderfully volatile and strange. The throwaway experimental spirit, the earnest aw-shucks self-deprecation, and the casual sacrilege of such lovely grotesqueries as vomiting Kermit: All of this made him magnetic. So it’s odd to see all his manias coagulated into mannerisms. It is as if the process of being hammered into an icon—a process partly encouraged by O’Brien’s blue period of jeering at NBC—has flattened his self-presentation. Though the endearing weirdness of old still flickers in spontaneous moments, when improvisation encourages a certain looseness, it generally feels as if he is sticking to a script.
In the very beginning, the most frustrating feature of Conan was the insistence of his woe-is-me act—his relentless jokes about his firing from NBC. But now, the TBS show has settled into something much more rote. It regularly puts the host in contexts that are conceptually thin—or, in the alternative, exclusively conceptual—and demands him to fight his way out by force of charm, speed of wit, and frequent resort to pure personality. He is the sum of the parts of all of the bits. The same night Rosario Dawson was on, he did a remote segment taped at an “escape room,” where he and a producer played a game of solving puzzles in a locked space decorated like the office of a film-noir gumshoe.
What laughs there were issued from O’Brien’s exaggerated frustration with his predicament, with his gangly slacking off and wiry acting up and antic adoption of wiseguy period dialogue. The phenomenon serves as a tidy metaphor for the state of Conan now. He amuses the faithful with his sheer exasperation at being trapped in stale quarters. He put in his time lampooning talk shows in a unique way, and he now seems to be doing time putting on a show within established limits, a reined-in version of his former self. This is perhaps its own perverse achievement: to devise a bespoke prison on one’s own wacky Elba.