Are you ready for Conan?
After months of build-up, Conan O’Brien – ousted from his “Tonight Show” gig earlier this year by the whims of Jay Leno – returns to late-night TV tonight with the debut of “Conan” on TBS.
The show will air at 11 p.m., which is an interesting gambit. On the plus side for Conan and TBS, it gives him a half-hour lead on his primary ratings rivals, Letterman and Leno, whose shows start at 11:30. On the down side, the earlier start time eliminates any viewers who value watching their local newscast. (In the age of DVR and TiVo, of course, such distinctions are almost obsolete, but still, it’s a mark of a show’s popularity and relevance that fans will choose to watch it live.)
Tonight’s announced guests are actors Seth Rogan and Lea Michele, but there is also a “mystery guest” who was chosen by fans in an online poll. The poll’s 12 candidates ranged from the high-profile (Pope Benedict, Jack Nicholson, Lady Gaga) to the obscure (a woman who operates a nutcracker museum) to the bizarre (the cast of the live-action “Fat Albert” movie).
It must be said that the ad campaign building up to tonight’s show has been nothing short of brilliant. The best of the early ads featured a doe-eyed young woman curling up in bed with a Conan O’Brien pillowcase and bedsheet while the song “Missing You” played on the soundtrack. Later, in perhaps the funniest of all the promo spots, Conan channeled his inner Paris Hilton as he got all sexy and soapy while washing his desk to the hoary strains of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” In one ad, he went through an elaborate series of quasi-Michael Jackson dance moves – shuffling his feet, stomping his heels and snapping his fingers in an otherwise silent ad before asking an unseen producer, “You’re going to add music to this before it airs, right? Because otherwise I’m just going to look like an ass.” More recently, he was seen sitting at the desk in a still-dark studio, counting down the days until the show’s premiere.
And then there was the blimp. Throughout the early stages of the baseball playoffs on TBS, the bright orange “CONAN” blimp floated above the stadiums. This allowed him to do a whole series of ads featuring Conan and the blimp’s surly pilot bickering in the craft’s cockpit.
Now it’s time for the cute, clever ad campaign to give way to a show that – hopefully – will be a hip and smart as his original NBC show(s). Will his TBS show be, essentially, the same as his NBC show(s), or will he make an effort to turn it into something completely distinctive? Will a basic cable talk show be able to compete in the ratings with established network shows? These questions will take some time to answer.
Here is the more immediate question: How many jokes will he make tonight at Jay Leno’s expense? I’m setting the over/under at three.
Mike Holtzclaw, a senior reporter at the Daily Press, comes to work at an ungodly early hour, but he will try to stay up to watch "Conan" tonight. You can reach him at email@example.com.