After a year which began with him becoming America's favorite talk show host even as he was in the process of being fired, and continued with a series of publicity stunts designed to kill time before his groundbreaking move to basic cable, Conan O'Brien is finally getting back to work. Conan premieres Monday on TBS at 11 p.m., and fresh off his miniscule stint hosting The Tonight Show, O'Brien is back where he was when he first took over Late Night in 1993: as the underdog.
The days that led up to the announcement that O'Brien was being replaced at Tonight by ex-host Jay Leno had to be some of the strangest in television history. Leno, who had always maintained an image as one of the nice guys in the business, a man who avoided controversy like it was plutonium, was being cast as the villain capitalizing on his own failure in prime time to push Conan out of a job. And while it wasn't surprising to see competitors David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel join in the bashing, NBC found itself getting creamed in its own programming, as Conan's monologues about his fate grew increasingly biting, and Kimmel used a guest appearance on The Jay Leno Show to savage the helpless host. Now, for the first time, O'Brien, Leno, Kimmel, and Letterman will all be in direct competition.
This is probably as good a time as any for Conan to be premiering, because the late night wars appear to be up for grabs. Leno is being hurt by the overall struggles of NBC, but it is also beginning to appear that the controversy over his resumption of Tonight duties has had a permanent effect on his popularity, as his ratings now are noticeably lower than they were before he went to The Jay Leno Show. Last week came the news that The Daily Show topped both Leno and Letterman in ratings in the 18-49 demographic in the month of October, a first.
Like Jon Stewart, O'Brien will take the airwaves at 11, a half hour earlier than his network rivals. This could be an advantage, as those who want to watch a talk show before bed have the option of choosing the familiar redhead instead of waiting an extra half hour. But the flipside is that the Conan audience probably overlaps the viewership for The Daily Show more than the other talk shows do, and those fans might decide to stick with Stewart. The question going forward is whether Conan can provide enough consistently funny moments so that people will do the unaccustomed and turn to TBS (with all due respect to George Lopez, who had been in that timeslot for the last year without drawing much attention). Despite his new guerrilla image and the cleverness of his publicity-getting tactics since leaving NBC (such as randomly picking one person to follow on Twitter), there's no evidence that O'Brien has any interest in dramatically reinventing the late night talk show.
In the past, Conan has shown an ability to rise up and do great work under pressure -- witness the shows he did practically alone during the writers' strike, or his final weeks of Tonight last winter, when he threw caution to the wind. He was loose and liberated. But the early indications are that he plans on doing a fairly conventional show, with a monologue, banter with the sidekick, and guests. O'Brien has never been at his best when following the talk show blueprint (his interviewing has improved over the last 17 years from The Worst Ever to merely mediocre), but while he's implied he's not going to be afraid to shake things up, he has been vague about how that's going to work.
Andy Richter will be joining Conan in a role closer to the pure sidekick position he had during the first several years of Late Night, which should serve to help with taped comedy bits. However, Max Weinberg has departed as Conan's bandleader, after following him to Los Angeles and Tonight. Jimmy Vivino takes over in that role, and it's too soon to say whether he can pull his comedy weight or not. The first night guests seem safe enough, even a little disappointing (Seth Rogen, Lea Michele, and Jack White). Conan has made a lot of friends over the years, but business is business, and if his ratings aren't up to par, he's going to have trouble landing the most desirable guests.
The key to Conan's longevity will be in keeping the excitement going after the initial rush of being back on the air has worn off. By getting fired, he became a national figure in a way he never had been before. But audiences have a way of moving on.