EUGENE, Oregon — Monday's kickoff of Conan O'Brien's Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour was part rock, part late-night variety show as O'Brien demonstrated a fighting attitude that will come in handy as he leverages a television comeback on TBS next season.
With a Doctor Evil-like character doing most of the NBC mocking, gaudy outfits (including an Eddie Murphy "Raw"-style purple leather suit), altered versions of well-worn bits, an inflatable "bat out of hell" and several guest appearances, a bearded O'Brien wowed the first group in his 32-city national tour.
"You may have heard: I got a new job," he told the 2,500 capacity crowd, joking he'd be the new assistant manager at Banana Republic. "I'll be in the corduroy section."
The tour launched on the heels of shocking news that in November, O'Brien will return to television on cable channel TBS, not a major network. In the meantime, he's contractually prohibited from appearing on TV, so the members of Team Coco have been supporting him at the box office, with most stops on this tour selling out within a few hours of going on sale in March. At Eugene's Hult Center for the Performing Arts, there were a few people who'd dyed their hair orange for the night, but the rest of the fans looked like typical concertgoers.
To open the show, comedian Reggie Watts set the tone with 40-minutes of his strange humor. He sang and beat-boxed several potty-mouthed songs covering such terrain as "big-ass purses," the anatomical function of hydrochloric acid and objectification of women in rap videos. With his huge, wobbling Afro, idiosyncratic voices and accents, and looped sound effects, Watts got the crowd roaring with more laughter than any other guest, including O'Brien's trusty foil Andy Richter.
The first sight of O'Brien was a close-up of his pasty white skin and red facial hair on the projection screen. As the video panned out, we saw an "overweight" O'Brien splayed on the floor with a half-eaten piece of pizza on his belly and an empty bottle of Budweiser near his head. The bit introduced the running theme that O'Brien's life is lonely and hollow when he is not on television.
But then O'Brien took the stage, slim, trim and lanky as ever. After an extended standing ovation, he began the monologue. He explained the eight stages of grief after losing a television show. The funniest was number four, anger, for which he showed photos of people such as Kim Kardashian, Snooki and illusionist Criss Angel, all of whom are on TV instead of him.
O'Brien, Richter and "Tonight Show" writer Deon Cole all took stabs at Eugene, but the funniest came from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. "Usually you have to go to a Dave Matthews Band concert to see this many white people," the dog said in a video segment, referring to the predictable demographics of the college town.
Triumph's bit was Mad Libs-style pre-recorded video, overdubbing clumsy edits to insert town-specific jokes.
"I know everything about your state," he said. Popular University of Oregon football coach Chip Kelly became the "state animal." Gay Portland Mayor Sam Adams was the "state flower." The puppet got more laughs than Cole's short stand-up act and Richter's live, radio-style "commercials."
Indie rockers Spoon took the stage as musical guests, leaving their own fans waiting 40 minutes at a downtown venue three blocks south.
O'Brien kept his NBC-bashing light and subtle, with occasional video segments featuring a bald O'Brien as "Generic Network Executive."
"This is the first time anyone has ever paid to see me," O'Brien said. "They've paid to make me go away."
O'Brien's newfound independence was on display with his beard and lack of heavy makeup (large under-eye bags and dark spots on his hands were visible on the large screen). And keeping with the idea that lawyers were watching and that it's unclear who owns his long-running jokes, Masturbating Bear became the "Self-Pleasuring Panda," and the Walker Texas Ranger Lever was the "Chuck Norris Rural Policeman Handle."
The random Chuck Norris video clips were a hit. But the musical numbers in which O'Brien subbed topical humor into songs like Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" and Cake's version of "I Will Survive" fell flat at many places, perhaps because the lyrical substitutions were too obvious.
The full cast returned to the stage for an encore that featured strobe lights, backup dancers and a massive bat out of hell inflating above the band and in front of a big screen flickering with flames.
As people filed out of the theater, the sinister network executive appeared one last time to spit hateful words.
"Go home to your pathetic little houses," he sneered, as some fans lingered, batting beach balls printed with cartoon images of O'Brien's face.