A disclaimer before I begin: I am a fan of Conan O’Brien and by extension The Tonight Show. I have always enjoyed the show, and even after everyone moves on, I will still like it. But there are problems. The show has lost its oomph, its ratings-share to Letterman, and is even beginning to spark nasty internet rumors about replacements. These are not good signs, especially in the first few months. While Conan is famous for his initial “Late Night” awkwardness in 1993, this new show should not be a transition.
Unfortunately, the problem is not all internal. There are external factors. When the Tonight Show began in 1954 it existed in a world without many options, especially that late at night (maybe there was the midnight movie but not much else). In terms of late night entertainment, this was it. No internet, no TiVo, no three hundred channels. When the last generation tells you they went to bed with Johnny Carson or Jack Paar, they are not kidding. It was that important a cultural touchstone; if you wanted to be famous in television, you didn’t go on a reality show, you got on the Tonight Show.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case anymore and Conan is suffering. Not only is there a plethora of options, at ten Jay Leno, the former host, broadcasts his version of the show. Imagine going to work each day and having your predecessor sharing the cubicle. Even if Leno is not doing so well in the ratings, those diehard fans who did like the old Tonight Show are following him to ten. The teenage audience who is looking for edgier has hit cable or Kimmel and those who care about the quirky are rediscovering Letterman and moving to CBS.
Enough context, let’s talk about the show itself. The episodes I watched this past week on Hulu and on NBC were mixed. The interviews still retained a freshness and polish that seemed inherited from “Late Night” but the monologue and sketches needed work. Conan still seems out of place on the stage doing jokes. The jokes are topical, but as Jon Stewart and Jimmy Kimmel have shown, there are more nuanced ways to satirize the news. I thought Conando, the show’s attempt at a telenovela, was very funny. Filmed entirely in Spanish, the episode I watched featured Segways, defenestration, and mall Santas, which, unlikely enough, worked together.
Sometimes during sketches, Conan feels flustered or out of touch. For example, one new feature, Twitter Tracker, feels more uncomfortable than funny. Conan is assaulted by an aggressive voice-over promising “sweeeeet tweets.” Soon he is overtaken by the voice and graphics as the sketch becomes even more absurd. I am foremost among Twitter’s critics, but for some reason Conan’s emotion here feels forced. Is he really afraid of a voiceover? Is he that interested in the sketch at all? Does Conan care about Twitter?
Either way, Conan should care about Twitter because it has changed the way we interact with media. In a world of so many entertainment options, all media has become relative; why watch Conan when you can twitter Carol from high school? We see a Conan in this sketch flustered by technology, tenaciously holding onto a conception of broadcasting that has become me-casting. Here he is literally being crowded out by a billion tweets. Nothing serves as a more apt metaphor for the show: stuffy, uptight, and already out of touch, crowded out by something as trivial as a tweet. However funny, Conan and his Tonight Show feels unduly irrelevant.