Although I was suitably outraged at the treatment Conan O'Brien got from NBC at the end of his short Tonight Show run, I've always been a rather inconsistent O'Brien fan. Since I'm not really a dedicated late-night TV viewer, I caught only bits and pieces of his Late Night over the years, although what I saw I always liked. When he transitioned to The Tonight Show, I watched the whole first week's worth of shows to write a review, then caught only snippets here and there afterward. It took O'Brien's final episode to get me to watch an entire Tonight Show again.
So I wasn't wearing a Team Coco shirt coming into the Pearl at the Palms here in Vegas on Saturday night for the first of two local performances on O'Brien's Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, and I feel like I've heard enough about how rough the guy's had it; with his new TBS show on the horizon, things have worked out pretty damn well for him. But the show still felt like a unique cultural moment, and it's something I'm glad I got the chance to witness. Although there were a lot of familiar elements from O'Brien's TV work -- sidekick Andy Richter, most of the Late Night/Tonight Show band, the Masturbating Bear (renamed the Self-Pleasuring Panda for copyright purposes) -- the live show was more like a concert than a TV taping, which was definitely the right way to do things. It didn't feel like sitting in a TV audience. It felt like a unique live performance.
Much of it, certainly, was the same as in other cities. The jokes about O'Brien's despair at not having his own TV show already felt a little stale, honestly, given the huge deal he's signed with TBS. They were still funny, but they felt like a leftover element from the original concept that's due to be dropped. Better were the bits tailored to the city, which didn't sound like pandering at all. O'Brien's extended opening monologue had a lot of decent Vegas jokes, and Andy Richter did a whole bit about local seedy strip club Larry's Villa that sounded disturbingly authentic. Even the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog segment, which was all pretaped, made use of exaggeratedly fake inserts to make jokes about the city (which are obviously piped in for each tour stop, but, again, sounded like someone actually bothered to research them).
The other main difference was the emphasis on music. The band stayed onstage the whole time, and the show opened with two straightforward musical numbers. O'Brien himself sang several songs, including modified versions of Elvis Presley's "Poke Salad Annie" and disco classic "I Will Survive," poking fun at his own life. There were no surprise guest stars as there have been in other cities, which was the one big disappointment. Granted, most Vegas performers were probably onstage at their own shows during the O'Brien performance, but there must have been someone who would have been willing to show up (Wayne Newton, maybe?). Instead, we got a mediocre stand-up set from former Tonight Show writer Deon Cole, definitely the least exciting part of the show (weird alt-comic Reggie Watts, who was the opening act, was much funnier).
The tour represents a strange in-between point for O'Brien, but it does seem to have reenergized him. I don't know if I'd want to see this sort of Conan O'Brien variety hour on TBS every night rather than a traditional talk show, but if O'Brien is smart, he'll take some of what works in the live setting and incorporate it into his new show. Even if he doesn't, he's shaken up his act in a way that never would have happened if NBC hadn't pushed him to reinvent himself.
[Photo from L.A. show, April 24]