For his new “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour, Conan O'Brien rode into Eugene on Sunday looking like a logger. One pre-show photo depicted him in a trucker hat, leather bomber jacket, a grisly ginger beard and a serious man-scowl.
Maybe O'Brien has convinced himself that, after going basic cable — he had just announced a deal to take his comedy hour to TBS sometime after his contract-induced ban from television expires — he needed a meaner look. Basic cable is the home of Damages, Justified and Ice Road Truckers after all, and right now O'Brien looks like a seriously Irish Brian Cranston (the meth-cooking teacher in Breaking Bad and baddest ass on basic cable). It's an outward act of defiance against the cleancut image he fostered on NBC that mirrors deeper changes in O'Brien's outlook.
Indeed, everything about O'Brien at this juncture seems like a stiff middle finger to NBC, where, for 16 years, he was second in command of a late-night lineup anchored by the perennially unfunny Jay Leno. In 2004, O'Brien was promised a shot at hosting The Tonight Show; the rest is history. Leno retired in 2009 but was promptly given his own show at 10 pm, which performed abysmally and was yanked. NBC wanted to push Conan's nascent and poorly performing version of The Tonight Show back a half-hour so Leno could have a half-hour deal. O'Brien said eff off and spent the rest of his time on late-night absolutely lambasting the execs at NBC for their mishandling of the situation and what O'Brien seemed to consider their outright betrayal.
After leaving the airwaves, Conan told the Eugene crowd Monday, he went through special stages of grief designed specifically for late-night comedy hosts: “denial, blame myself, blame everyone else around me, anger, paranoia, 36 hours of Red Bull and Halo, buy everything Amazon says I would also like… .”
That pretty much brings us up to date in Eugene.
And though the TBS announcement was less than 12 hours old, the tour's first show was an interesting look into what O'Brien's cable gig might look like. Having ditched the tie he always wore at NBC and going with an open-collar sports-agent look, Conan got one of his bigger laughs with a swipe at his former employer, NBC. “I'm not allowed to say 'peacock,'” he said, “but I can say 'pee' and 'cock.'”
No one would ever define O'Brien as a blue comedian, but he has always used crudity to flavor his geeky, self-deprecating Ivy League refinement. (He went to Harvard, and his father taught there.) O'Brien's the guy who gave us Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (trademark line: “... for me to poop on.”) and the Masturbating Bear, who needed no tagline at all.
O'Brien's NBC contract doesn't allow him to take these particular pieces of intellectual property with him to TBS, but he's found a loophole. On Monday in Eugene, he introduced the Self-Pleasuring Panda.
We can bet the TBS show will have more “pee” and “cock” than the peacock was ever comfortable with. TBS, after all, is the network that welcomed lowbrow, boring George Lopez to anchor their late-night ambitions before O'Brien became a free agent.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, O'Brien and his team had been in talks with Fox, but both sides were a little iffy on the deal. Fox affiliates (like Fox 28 in Spokane) make a lot of money off their syndicated late-night programming. If a new late-night show starring Conan O'Brien were to premiere, most of the revenue would revert to Fox. Another snag was that Fox also wanted to hire O'Brien as an employee (the way NBC had), rather than buying a show produced and owned by O'Brien (which Team CoCo preferred).
When TBS came in offering O'Brien a reported $10 million per year, ownership rights and, most importantly, no ratings demands — Conan's built-in audience should easily beat Lopez's current 1.2 million, numbers which TBS is apparently already happy about — a deal was inked in less than three days. His lead-in, rather than a mediocre Leno show and the late local news, will be nightly reruns of Family Guy and The Office, with some talk of Cartoon Network's kidult-skewing, hipster-friendly Adult Swim lineup factoring in as well. For a guy who lives and dies by the viewership of hip young males, it doesn't get any better than that.
Which also brings us up to the hours before Eugene. With the signing of the TBS deal, the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour” has suddenly become a 30-city junket for a new, as-yet-unnamed Conan O'Brien-owned television product — a show that will pay him as much as NBC did for The Tonight Show, which will have far fewer restrictions as to content, and which comes with no real viewership stress.
O'Brien has neglected the Twitter account that has served as the SS Conan's ballast in O'Brien's journey to stay on viewers' radar. He released a statement, though, saying that “In three months, I've gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I'm headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly.”
I'm willing to bet, though, that in a few years, this juncture in O'Brien's career will be looked at as transformational — not only for O'Brien himself, but for the entire television ecosystem, further shifting the balance of power from the networks to basic cable.
So yeah, Conan, “working perfectly” just about sums it up.
Conan O'Brien will display his manly beard on Friday, April 16, at 7:30 pm at the INB Center. As of press time, a single ticket was available.