Conan the Morning After: Critics Respond to the Premiere

Conan the Morning After: “Baa Baa Blackmail”

November 9th, 2010

Despite what their titles or tags may say, no one really “reviewed” Conan last night.

While an evaluative measure may have been undertaken by numerous critics, it is always with an asterisk: yes, we all had our opinions following Conan O’Brien’s return to late night television, but making a judgment based on a single episode of a show which plans to air four episodes a week is effectively impossible.

This should not, and did not, stop critics from being critical of his performance or from offering their perspective, but it does limit critics to what I’d consider to be “personal responses.” It becomes about what expectations we had going into the broadcast, and whether or not the “Baa Baa Blackmail” (the premiere’s rather fun “title”) lived up to those expectations depends on what precisely we wanted or expected to see.

By collecting some of these responses, i hope to be able to demonstrate that Conan and late night in general are many things to many critics, and that the show is in many ways “for” the precise opposite audience.

In my own response, I admit it up front: I don’t want a lot of late night television, and the majority of my appreciation of Conan has been from afar. And so what struck me about Conan is that it seemed to lack the sense of edge which defined his earlier work, leaving instead a sort of celebration of internet fame that lacked the same depth.

Who is Conan‘s Conan?: A Personal Response [Cultural Learnings]

“my memories of Conan are of special occasions: of the free-wheeling days of the writers’ strike, of his celebratory farewell from Late Night, of his mix of nervousness and reverence taking over the Tonight Show, and of his absolutely unhinged series of shows which emerged after NBC announced that he would no longer be hosting that same show. I didn’t see that Conan tonight…[;] outside of locating himself on basic cable (where he gets paid “much less” and where random noises appear from the backstage Meineke shop) there is nothing to differentiate this from his week-to-week approach to the Tonight Show.”

Now, for those who simply feel better when Conan’s boyish humor is on their television, this is a plus; however, for someone who doesn’t normally watch his shows, it felt as if “more of the same” was a disappointment considering what this new outlet could offer. The potential is huge, and while there is room to expand in subsequent weeks this was the largest audience he was ever going to get, and so appealing to the people who already love him and the internet fans who supported him seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

It’s a sentiment echoed in the more critical responses, including from AOL Television’s Maureen Ryan:

Meet the new ‘Conan’ [AOL’s TV Squad]

“What’s deflating, though, is realizing that this is not his first time around the block. He’s done this sort of thing before. Before the paint was dry on the set, why not just toss out or cut back on the elements of the late-night format that didn’t necessarily work for him? Why slavishly recreate a set of rules that previous sets of talk-show hosts perfected?  Why, given the chance for reinvention, do the same damn thing again?”

Mo points to the lack of “reinvention,” and I think it’s a fair point: facing off against Jon Stewart at 11pm, Conan is competing against comedy which moves away from traditional rules of the late night “talk show.” And we know that Conan has elements of his shows which moved away from traditional late night comedy, which makes the sheer familiarity of this premiere that much more disappointing. I had the same reaction as Mo did, but people on Twitter responded that this was both definitive proof that I was now a curmudgeonly critic and that it was “just late night,” indicating that fans had no expectations of such a reinvention. They just wanted Conan, and they seemed happy about it.

But the show prompted Alessandra Stanley, the oft maligned critic for the New York Times, to offer the following evaluation, one which speaks to the sense that Conan (despite his fan following) was treading in familiar territory:

TV Watch: A Joyously Self-Referential Return to Late Night [NYT]

“And while Mr. O’Brien, now sporting a trimmed beard, seemed in good form and high spirits, it was hard to tell from that one night how his cable show would differ from his previous perches; his first night on TBS was a long lament about not being on NBC anymore…But he lingered perhaps a little too long and self-indulgently on his émigré status. Mr. O’Brien seems at times stuck in the pleasures of self-pity…The show is called “Conan” but it felt at times like it should be labeled “I’m Not Jay.””

Stanley’s response raises, albeit it a stilted manner which undersells the argument, the concern that Conan’s comedy relied too heavily on the “Jaypocalypse,” a fair point which runs through most highly critical responses. However, it is interesting that she refers to it as “self-pity,” and that she thinks the result is that Conan is defining himself independent of Jay. Not only did Conan never mention Jay Leno by name, but I would argue that there’s an irony about talking so much about how difficult his past was and then delivering a show which was nearly identical to what he did before. I also think that most critics have accepted that Conan is not – thank goodness – Jay Leno or Jay Leno-esque, and thus moved onto how Conan compares to his own previous work.

And yet, as some rightfully point out, it is not necessarily a terrible thing that Conan did not come out of the gates with a game-changing experience. TIME’s James Poniewozik, while acknowledging that the balance may have been off, considers what moments spoke to the show Conan might become:

Conan Returns [Tuned In]

“It was in [the] beginning and in [the] ending—not the interview sandwich in between—where I saw the chance of Conan the performer doing something new with Conan the show. (Silly as it is, that’s why I was glad to see Conan keep the beard; not just because it looks good, but because it symbolizes Conan, the new man.) And I want to see that not because there was anything wrong with Late Night—there wasn’t—but because I suspect and hope that Conan learned things in that year as traveling folk hero that made him evolve as a performer. And because Late Night and Tonight are over. Better to move us forward with him, in a show that is neither beholden to NBC’s notes nor to the implicit ones of Team Coco, and leave the past where it belongs: in your new show’s first monologue.”

There is both a time and a place for this material, and I think James is right in that this was it. While I might have personally liked less of it, the fact remains that Conan needed to address this time for a wide variety of reasons (including appeasing his considerably fan base), and so tonight’s episode will be the real test. I do think, though, that James is right to desire evolution: even if it not immediate, I think we as critics want to believe that this has changed Conan as opposed to simply reaffirming his existing perspective on comedy. We may still enjoy Conan, and want for Conan to succeed, but we also want this experience to have been something more than an internet sensation.

And I think critics have reason to be concerned about the sense that Conan is appealing to everyone at once, as Linda Holmes points out in her response at NPR:

The First ‘Conan’ [NPR]

“But ultimately, if he’s going to succeed the way he wants to, he is going to have to take more risks and not try too hard to fill everybody’s order at once like he’s a short-order cook with twenty arms and a really big grill. Eventually, you can’t serve everybody; you have to do what you do well and be confident that there’s a customer for it. It’s as true in making television as it is in life: to succeed, you have to relax, and to relax, you have to stop worrying about doing absolutely everything right. It’s ironic and cyclical, and it confounds talk-show hosts as much as it confounded the overachievers you knew in college.”

Conan’s nervousness is, at this point, part of his persona, but Linda points out one of the the concerns about this premiere. While there are moments which clearly appeal to Conan’s existing fanbase, other elements (especially the interviews) felt as if they were there purely to speak to younger demographics that TBS want to have watching their show. Instead of allowing Tom Hanks to come out the first night, they very carefully chose Seth Rogen and Lea Michele to potentially draw in younger viewers and to prove to those viewers that Conan will be getting “hip” stars despite being on basic cable. The interviews spoke to an entirely different audience than Conan getting up and jamming with Jack White, and while I’m glad he’s been emboldened to make that kind of move it seemed less rebellious in this context than it did on the final episode of the Tonight Show thanks to its context of a show which was slick rather than scrappy.

And yet, as David Sims points out at The A.V. Club, scrappiness is not a sustainable method of late night television production in and of itself:

TV Club – Conan – Premiere [The A.V. Club]

“I’m not suggesting he’s at risk of getting canceled (TBS should be satisfied with just about any ratings number) or even of losing his cult cachet and millions of Twitter fans, but in the end, Conan does feel like just another late night show, and TV is littered with the damn things. When interviewing Lea Michele, there was some weird noise offstage, which Conan dismissed as the vagaries of basic cable: “Someone rented out a space right there!” That got a big laugh, of which Conan derisively quipped, “Oh, he’s making the best of it!” Even he knows those sympathy laughs aren’t going to carry him forever.”

Those moments of spontaneity are, for some of us, a sign that the Conan of old remains, and those flashes are the show’s potential. Those sympathy laughs are what the premiere seemed to rely on, but they were also a key part of his persona before this whole debacle; what I think some of us wanted was the reclamation of that persona, and yet I think we also wanted Conan to find a new outlet for this particular style of humor. And yet what Conan offered was something which has the stability of a traditional late night show to ground it. That it is his starting point, as it always has been, and over the course of this week we’ll see the degree to which he wants to challenge that.

This premiere, though, was a celebration, simultaneously reveling in self-pity and self-congratulation. And yet, as these responses indicate, something that was missing seemed to be self-reflection; instead of pushing him to question his comic persona, the premiere showed a Conan whose experience with the strike has institutionalized that which once seemed separate from the institution. The question now is how he breaks off from here: what will be the moment wherein Conan O’Brien becomes alternative, as opposed to an alternative, again.

And, hopefully, critics will still be watching: I might not have time to watch beyond week one, but I think that there is value to checking in on Conan in six months (as Scott Tobias suggested on Twitter) to see how these responses change. Sure, it’s possible Conan will be on hiatus in early April, but I think that it’s our duty to check in at that point (along with later in the week, if we keep watching) to understand how these initial opinions will have been changed or perhaps solidified.

The one common thread is that everyone seems to like Conan, and they want Conan to succeed. No, they were not as universally positive as most fans seemed to be, but in keeping a critical distance from the Conan phenomenon I think we were meant to respond in this way: we want to push Conan to do more while reserving judgment on the final product. We may be disappointed, but I have yet to see a response which is dismissive; there is a kernel of something great here, just as there is in his past, and so we wait and see just what comes of it.

More Responses

Alan Sepinwall [HitFix]:

But if it felt much like an episode of one of Conan’s old shows, the “Conan” debut also felt like a middle-of-the-pack example. Some funny bits, some other obligatory moments, and a good feeling to have the guy back, but nothing extraordinary like, say, his final week on “Tonight.”…Conan clearly doesn’t want to [reinvent the wheel], nor should he have to, but his TBS debut confirmed my feeling that I’m not likely to be a regular “Conan” viewer.

Jaime Weinman [MacLean’s]:

But I feel like if there’s one thing cable could do, at least theoretically, it’s bringing back more discussions of work and show business and the reasons why we actually pay to watch these people. But Conan doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to do that, because I get the impression that this doesn’t interest him a great deal, at least regarding some of his guests. In the Lea Michele interview, there’s very little about the process of actually working on the show, and that’s fine; I’m just saying that there could be an alternate-universe talk show where the host and guest spend more time telling us things we didn’t know already. Like I said, though, I don’t expect that show to be O’Brien’s.

Cory Barker [TV Surveillance]:

Oddly, the first show kind of suffers because it focuses too much on Conan. It seems obvious that the show had to comment on it and play it up for laughs, but there’s a lot of “Conan, you’re awesome” from the guests and it played out in this weird nostalgia-but-not-really-type feeling that can’t really be described.

Noel Kirkpatrick [Monsters of Television]:

Would I have preferred the rest of the episode occur with Conan and Andy (and maybe the guests?) wearing the Ex-Talk Show Host masks? Absolutely. But it’s the first episode, and like with so many first episodes, there’s a lot of exposition to map out, and after that’s done, then you can get to the good stuff.

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