Wednesday, June 9, 2010

We're with Coco

It's been a while since I've written anything I decided that I should write something...ANYTHING today. I could have written about Tuesday's election, but I think everyone is writing about that, so I'll leave it alone. I could write about the oil spill in the Gulf Coast, and probably will soon, but the topic saddens me greatly and I'm going to save it for another day. Instead, I'll write about a topic that captivated America about six months ago, and probably will again in another five months -- "Coco". Conan O' Brien.

First, let's recap:
-- Conan O' Brien was a writer for The Simpsons, and Saturday Night Live amongst other less-successful projects.
-- Conan was tapped to replace David Letterman when he left NBC in 1993.
-- Conan hosted "Late Night with Conan O' Brien" for 17 years, successfully earning critical and audience praise along the way, easily defeating all competition (including "Late Late Show" hosts Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn and Criag Ferguson on CBS).
-- Conan was chosen in 2004 to replace Jay Leno when he planned to leave "The Tonight Show" in 2009.
-- Conan replaced Jay in 2009 and Jay was given a 10 p.m. show on NBC.
-- "The Jay Leno Show" failed miserably. NBC decided to move Jay back to 11:30 rather than fire him...and planned to move Conan back to 12 midnight. Conan said "no," saying that The Tonight Show (which he would still be hosting) would be "ruined" if NBC decided to air the show after midnight. Conan argued that at that point it would no longer be "The Tonight Show" - it would be the "Tomorrow Show". Conan also argued that Jimmy Fallon, who replaced Conan on "Late Night" would be treated unfairly if he were to have to start a show at 1 a.m. NBC said "fine" and put Leno back on "The Tonight Show" and kicked Conan to the curb.

Fast forward a few months and we have the "Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour". I have a bit of extra insight on late night television -- I hosted a local late night talk show for a little more than 3 years and have "studied" (if you can call it that) late night TV for as long as I have been old enough to do so. I hope to write more about late night TV in the months ahead. But, among the things I've learned, you must be a great COMMUNICATOR as well as an engaging, funny personality to have a successful late night talk show for 17 years (although Jay Leno is the exception that proves this rule). Only four people have had this kind of staying power: Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Conan O' Brien, and the afore-mentioned Jay Leno.

I went to see Conan's "Prohibited" tour earlier this month. Conan O' Brien took to the stage in Boston for two hours and communicated with the audience personally, candidly, and brilliantly. He had us in the palm of his hand from the moment he walked on stage wearing a jersey from his hometown Boston Celtics. He began his monologue by talking about his family, many of whom were in the audience that evening -- 4 of them were sitting right in front of me. He talked about staying in the bedroom he grew up in while the tour was in Boston, and then he continued with a frank discussion about his life after losing the Tonight Show. He told the story with a perfect blend of honesty and self-humiliation. Conan sang songs, he energized his crowd, he brought out fan favorites Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (on video), the "Walker Texas Ranger Lever," and a bear who's name I refuse to mention on this blog even made a surprise cameo appearance at the end of the show. Some "friends" showed up to join in the fun - Ed Helms of "The Office" and "The Hangover" made Conan laugh with delight, and Boston favorites the Dropkick Murphys allowed Conan to sit in on what is arguably their most recognizable son, "Shipping Up to Boston."

I don't know if it was because he was performing in his old stomping grounds for the first time since taking late night by storm, or if it was because he is like this all the time, but Conan appeared genuinely touched by the outpouring of support at the Wang Theater, and across the country, as his tour is coming to an end. Conan let us into his life. There were inside jokes that we felt like we were a part of -- such as a cuss word being immediately followed by the words, "I'm sorry Mrs. O' Brien," by Conan's sidekick, Andy Richter. Conan responded with a gut-busting laugh, saying, "You don't know how funny that really is..." as he continued to laugh -- and somehow, I think everyone in the audience developed a vivid picture of Mrs. O' Brien sitting in the audience with arms folded and pursed lips, wondering why her son had to resort to using "naughty language." Conan also told the story of the "8 steps of recovery" from losing the Tonight Show...ending with "coming home to Boston". The 8 steps were filled with comedy, but one has to think that there was plenty of reality in it as well.

What I took away from the show is that Conan is just like many of us...but in some ways, better at showing it. He's funny. He's witty. He's sophmoric. He's personable. He's engaging. He's appreciative. He's sensative. He's forgiving. He's a guitar player. He's self-depricating. He's freakishly tall. He loves his family. He loves his heritage. He loves a good joke - no matter who it comes from, or who it's directed toward. He loves "Walker, Texas Ranger." He loves his fans. He loves Boston. He loves late night television and appreciates its history.

I have often said that the reason that David Letterman is the current King of Late Night (and Johnny Carson before Letterman) not just because he's funny, but because he is a good communicator. I now realize that Conan O' Brien was not heir apparent to Jay Leno after all. He's better than that. Conan should be heir apparent to David Letterman, following in the mold of excellent communicators, and innovative personalities.

Go get 'em, Conan. We can't wait until you're back on television.

(Conan returns to late night beginning Nov. 8 at 11 p.m. on TBS.)