“Sort of Worth It” or Better? Discussing Conan O’Brien at DAR Constitution Hall
Last night, Arts Desk took a field trip to DAR Constitution Hall for Conan O'Brien's Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour, the comedian's cross-country trek following the much-publicized fizzling of his run hosting The Tonight Show. The evening began with a video of O'Brien—unshorn, obese, unemployed—waking up in his home, and it ended with an explosive musical encore. Arts Editor Jonathan L. Fischer attempted to moderate a discussion of the show with critics Chris Klimek and Benjamin R. Freed, but his Gmail failed him. They bravely soldiered on.
Jonathan L. Fischer: So, last night we had a mix of Conan's old gags and a good deal of his riffage on unemployment and semiemployment, but: Was it "sort of worth it?" He established that as the measure of the evening's success. Did you feel short-changed on Masturbating Bear?
Chris Klimek: Well, let's discuss what the goal was. To quickly capitalize on a groundswell of popular support that I do believe genuinely surprised him? I don't think going away for six months would have hurt him professionally, but he did find himself at least briefly at the center of the cultural conversation back in January in a way I don't think he expected to be at this point in his career. There must have been some discussion of how to sustain that momentum, and this probably was the only way to do that left open by the terms of him accepting that $40 million severance deal.
I believe the bear actually is the, er, intellectual/masturbatory property of NBC Universal. So having him there even briefly, at the very end, is arguably punk rock.
Benjamin R. Freed: If the fight over The Tonight Show had happened and Conan was bought out quietly, I'm not sure he would be coming back as successfully as he is. The tour is obviously something to keep busy with, but it's also very much an answer to the outpouring of support Conan received in January. Also, I can't believe I missed the bear.
Jonathan L. Fischer: For the record, at some other shows the Masturbating Bear was transformed into the Self-Pleasuring Panda.
Chris Klimek: Oh, definitely. I don't think Conan would have chosen for it all to go down this way, even now, but I think anyone who doesn't share his reverence for the institution of The Tonight Show would have to conclude he won big.
Jonathan L. Fischer: And yet it didn't exactly feel like a victory lap, did it?
Chris Klimek: Team CoCo is a big tent; it accepts onanistic animals of all species. Wait, I should have taken the opportunity to rhyme "onan" with . . . something. Shit.
Benjamin R. Freed: Agree. Conan was the the winner by any measure other than who gets to host The Tonight Show. In a more kind world, none of this would happen. Conan would still be on a network at 11:30 and Jay Leno would be home tinkering with his antique cars.
Chris Klimek: It was remarkably free of promotion for his upcoming TBS show. Why wouldn't he talk about that? I think it got a line or two in the altered lyrics to "On the Road Again," but that's it. Maybe that was part of his gag order?
Benjamin R. Freed: Sorry. Not supposed to call the current host of The Tonight Show by name. Strike Leno, make that "unnamed comedian with big chin." I think the TBS deal came through right around when the tour started. But that doesn't start until November. It would pretty obnoxious to use a springtime tour to promote a TV show that doesn't premier for another five months.
Chris Klimek: Right. But I want to dig into the Victory Lap thing for a second. There's a paradox here, because Conan's entire act is based on this self-deprecating public persona of him as this sort of retiring, awkward loser. This is a man who's never had a shit job, really, who went straight from Harvard to SNL and "The Simpsons." He's 47 now, and it appears unlikely he'll try to present himself to the public in a different way . . . Um, I capitalized Victory Lap because it's a title, folks. Victory Lap, starring Conan O'Brien, Adam Corolla, and Rob Schneider. Coming soon to a former Blockbuster Video near you . . . It's about a retired Formula One race car driver who . . . never mind, aborting joke.
Benjamin R. Freed: I'll have to take your word for if on that one. The odds of Blockbuster surviving long enough for me to join are worse than Conan's chances of getting another shot at The Tonight Show.
But about that Victory Lap... I don't think Conan's fanbase wants him to change his on-stage persona.
Chris Klimek: In a way, I think these shows were also kind of intended as Team CoCo meetups, a way of demonstrating in a very public way the differences between to O'Brien and Leno demos.
Benjamin R. Freed: Conan has led a very charmed life, but I think the popular support has a lot to do with what the fans look like.
Chris Klimek: It's a little weird that Conan is always discussed as the guy for the college demo. Like, really? He's 47.
Well, Leno is not replenishing his audience as they die off, I don't believe. I still kinda want to see Leno do this allegedly very subversive stand-up he supposedly still has in him—I've heard Patton Oswalt, among others, talk about how different he is when the cameras aren't on.
Benjamin R. Freed: I figure his audience always skewed younger because even though Conan ages, his comedy style has remained fairly odd compared to a lot of his contemporaries. So when Team CoCo emerged, it wasn't too surprising that the groundswell happened on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Chris Klimek: Conan has never done stand-up, really—his entire career has been in TV. And I think his on-camera persona is pretty close to who he really is, or at least who he still thinks of himself. The goofball who can't get girls to talk to him. Etc.
Benjamin R. Freed: That Conan was the beneficiary of the biggest social-network protest this side of Tehran was surprising.
Chris Klimek: Yeah, Twitter can be used for the momentous or the frivolous, like any other medium!
Okay: Last night's show was, what, an hour forty-five? For how much of that, would you say, was Conan the focus of the humor?
Benjamin R. Freed: The show last night felt like an extended version of the first 30 minutes of Late Night. And the first hour was all about Conan.
Chris Klimek: We got some warm-up from the band, a couple of bits from professional good sport Andy Richter, a standup set from former Tonight Show writer Deon Cole.
Benjamin R. Freed: Yeah, I don't think La Bamba ever sang on Conan's TV shows.
Chris Klimek: But it was still way more Conan-on-Conan than we're used to. Usually he has some topical stuff to riff on—though he relies less on that than any other TV comic, probably.
Benjamin R. Freed: Between the video intro, the introverted monologue and "Polk Salad Annie," it was all Conan-on-Conan up front. But that's what we were paying for.
Chris Klimek: Right, that was probably the first third of the show.
Benjamin R. Freed: If I wanted to see topical stand-up, I'd stay home and watch Jay Leno.
Chris Klimek: Toothless topical standup, but yeah.
Wearing a variant of Eddie Murphy's costume was pretty sly, I thought. Maybe a comment on his awareness of the perils that face a comic who lets it all go to his head . . . That was right before Eddie stopped being funny, wasn't it? 1988?
Benjamin R. Freed: Right before. Beverly Hills Cop wasn't long after Raw, and that's about it for Eddie.
Chris Klimek: Yeah, that's a weird thing. The show felt a little trapped in amber, if only after six or seven weeks on the road.
Benjamin R. Freed: On that video. That I had heard about it as the tour kicked kind of sucked the punch out of it.
Chris Klimek: Paradoxically, it's probably a lot easier to adapt a TV broadcast to events of the day than a live show, where so much of your time is spent just moving people and gear from place to place. I knew about the video, too, and I had not really sought out reviews of the tour.
Benjamin R. Freed: Like any other big touring act, I think 80-90 percent of it is planned before they hit the road.
Chris Klimek: But as long as we're talking about it—having a Conan training montage a la Rocky was great . . .
. . . until they totally abandon the joke by showing us Conan stripping off his fat suit! WTF?
Benjamin R. Freed: It's pretty characteristic for Conan to break the fourth wall. Even on stage.
Chris Klimek: That acknowledgment of the low production values is a Conan staple, agreed. I just thought that same joke worked better presented in other ways, like when the camera cut to a closeup of a bulging, tanned arm that clearly belonged to someone besides CoCo.
Benjamin R. Freed: I actually liked ripping off the fat suit better than the arm. The muscle joke has been done to shreds.
Chris Klimek: Right. The protein shake with Doritos and Orange, no, wait, Strawberry Crush was better. And Crisco! Suddenly I don't really want this doughtnut anymore.
Was anyone surprised by the relative lack of local content?
Benjamin R. Freed: Not really. The joke about Conan visiting the 42 places where Rahm Emanuel has told people to fuck off was about as local as it got.
Chris Klimek: Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog's whole prerecorded bit was hung on that one joke of having a different voice dub in all the local references. Another oldie, but it worked, I thought.
Benjamin R. Freed: That was great. Though to touch on a subject from way back in the chat, Triumph is probably property of NBC too.
Chris Klimek: I am entirely incapable of critical objectivity on the subject of Triumph, by the way. Performer of the century. And the last century. I think Robert Smigel, who performs Triumph, might own him, too. Not sure.
Benjamin R. Freed: The dubbed local references were excellent.
Chris Klimek: Andy's live advertisement for DC Duck Tours was good. "Using the same technology that helped us to win World War II . . ."
(amphibious jeeps, people)
Benjamin R. Freed: That was kind of local. But every big city has those Duck Tours. And they're all equally horrible.
Chris Klimek: Believe it or not, that had not occurred to me. Embarrassing.
Benjamin R. Freed: Maybe they find a different tourist trap for Andy to mock in each city.
Chris Klimek: But do they all guarantee their customers a sub-60 percent probability of contracting Malaria on the journey?
Benjamin R. Freed: That might be a hallmark of the DC Duck Tour.
Chris Klimek: Okay: Can you think of another comic whose real-time self-critique of his own act is as critical to his entire M.O. as with Conan? Because as we sit here critiquing his performance, it strikes me that Conan does that already, after almost every joke. I barely notice any more, he's done it so often and for so long. Last night, he goes into a generic Kennedy accent for like 10 seconds before saying, "I don't even know which Kennedy that was. It might have been Mayor Quimby."
Benjamin R. Freed: That's part and parcel of the awkward, smart guy act.
Chris Klimek: Right. What other comics do that, though? I'm asking.
Benjamin R. Freed: No one to that extent.
Chris Klimek: That might be what keeps us all on his side, and keeps our expectations low. We all seem to agree that last night's show was "good enough," emphasis on the last, but we're not disappointed, are we?
Benjamin R. Freed: I'm not. Sorry folks, I didn't go to Harvard, UNLIKE SOME GANGLY TV COMEDIANS I COULD NAME. Self-deprecating jokes are common enough, but Conan's shtick is about hearing his internal monologue. I can't think of anyone who's been half as successful as Conan with that style.
Chris Klimek: Right. He might actually me one of least self-loathing comics ever at his level . . .
. . . I mean, if you accept the cliche about all comedians being miserable, lonely, self-loathing depressives. Do we accept that? Let's leave Leno out of it.
Benjamin R. Freed: I accept that.
Chris Klimek: And Conan just kind of externalizes that.
Benjamin R. Freed: Conan's comedy makes it OK to feel weird about yourself. The self-loathing depressive act is about bringing the audience down to your level.
Chris Klimek: I mean, his memories of being bullied and whatever are probably real enough—funny looking guy with a barbarous first name—but that actual, constant self-critique he's got running, just, all the time—probably that's something other comedians recognize in themselves. He just, you know, says it out loud.
We might be circling back to why his Tonight Show didn't really work until he knew he was getting the boot: Polishing Conan up even a little rubs all, or most, of the funny off of him. It happened to Letterman. Much of the 12:30 audience didn't move to 11:30.
Shall we discuss the role of music in the show? Not counting the Max Weinberg-less Seven's warmup, which was great, Conan played five songs, I think . . .
Benjamin R. Freed: Counting the "Seven Nation Army" snippet?
Chris Klimek: Gonna date myself now, but I attended a Late Night taping at NBC in, I think, 1998. Back then, I didn't know Conan played guitar or anything, and the studio audience seemed to eat it up when he came out preair and played a few rockabilly tunes with the band.
Oh, I didn't count "Seven Nation Army." Six, then. "Seven Nation" had no vocals.
Conan isn't a terrible musician, but a little of that goes a long, long way. Of course, I wouldn't have traded the inflatable Meat Loaf Bat Out of Hell bat for anything.
Benjamin R. Freed: I think one of the real gems of this tour — having read about it and now having seen it — is that it's allowed Conan to be more of a musician. There was never an opening for him to join the band when he was on NBC, and I'm sure it'll be the same when he starts the TBS show.
Chris Klimek: Because no one demanded it, the set list: "Polk Salad Annie" (Elvis Presley) / "On the Road Again" (Willie Nelson) / "I Will Survive" (Gloria Gaynor as reimagined by Cake as reinterpreted by Conan) / "The Weight" (The Band, with original lyrics intact) / "40 Days"
Benjamin R. Freed: Don't forget the Coquettes!
Chris Klimek: Were there any other gags on the Late Night show built around his guitar playing besides the occasional lullaby-with-awful, portents-of-doom lyrics bit?
My humblest apologies, Coquettes!
Benjamin R. Freed: I remember a few one-off sketches. There was a gag once in which he'd sneak up on his Guitar Hero-playing staff and start playing his real guitar.
Chris Klimek: Hasn't he had some actual musicians join him as unannounced guests at other shows on the tour?
Benjamin R. Freed: In a lot of cities. Though not Washington.
Chris Klimek: That wasn't a slap at Trey Anastasio, by the way. Who I think was the most recent one.
Benjamin R. Freed: He had Spoon in Eugene; Eddie Vedder in Seattle; Vampire Weekend at Radio City
Chris Klimek: Wow. Last night would certainly have benefitted from a couple of tunes from an act of that calber.
Benjamin R. Freed: (There's a Wikipedia page for the tour). I was going to ask. Did you feel shortchanged at all that the D.C. show ended up in the minority of tour stops that had no surprise guests?
Chris Klimek: STOP GIVING AWAY TRADE SECRETS! Nine or 11 people are going to read this, you fool! O'Brienesque joke.
Benjamin R. Freed: We can replace my Wikipedia reference with a cutaway from Walker.
Chris Klimek: Nicely done, Mr. Freed.
Benjamin R. Freed: Thank you. But back to the guests.
Chris Klimek: And a fair point: They couldn't find any OTHER hilarious "Walker" clips. I had seen all those before. On "Late Night." Not on on "Chuck Norris, Rural Policeman."
Benjamin R. Freed: Last night's show definitely could have benefitted from some surprise guests.
Chris Klimek: Agreed, but who? I am in a fortuitious position to answer this question, perhaps.
Benjamin R. Freed: Al Franken? He was right behind me in line to get in.
Chris Klimek: Five years ago, before I lived in D.C., I was in the employ of a performer who played a solo show here for six weeks, and one of jobs was to take care of the famous guests who came to the show . . . It would be a better job to have now, actually, in the Obama-Franken era. But nevermind. Best we could do back then was George Stephanapolous, Stephen Breyer, Charles Krauthammer . . . Fine gentlemen, all. None of whom I want to join Conan on stage.
Benjamin R. Freed: Nor whom would want to join Conan on stage.
Chris Klimek: (Jesus. Let's replace that whole section with "Walker" clips, please.) Well, shall we wrangled this in the direction of some kind of conclusion? We seem to be in broad agreement that the show was comforting, unsurprising, and on the whole, perfectly adequate.
We sound like the Leno audience, I have to say.
Benjamin R. Freed: Victims of the D.C. zeitgeist. We're nothing if not excessively topical.
Chris Klimek: When was the TBS show announced? Did that happen before the tour started or after?
Benjamin R. Freed: If it was Conan's goal for us to say "Wow, that was sort of worth it," he succeeded.
Right around that 60 Minutes interview. Beginning of May I think.
Chris Klimek: Hmmm, yeah.
So maybe the most interesting takeaway from all of this is that I don't buy Conan's underdog act, but I don't resent him for it in the least. In fact, it succeeds, contrary to the objections of my rational mind, in endearing him to me.
Benjamin R. Freed: Like you said last night, it's tough to actually feel sorry for someone who got a $35 million buyout and then lined up another huge TV deal.
Chris Klimek: I guess because I believe that's how he still thinks of himself, despite having never really failed in his life until a few months ago, and then somehow managing to turn that failure into a career-rejuvenating triumph.
Before we close, I would like to retract something I said on Twitter last night at Andy Richter's expense: I'm sure he's earned LOTS of standing ovations in his career. I didn't mean it, Andy. And actually, Andy's landed-joke ratio was higher than Conan's, I thought. That's the straight man's advantage—if you've got nothin', you can just keep your mouth shut and no one notices.
Benjamin R. Freed: Andy's ratio was much higher. And of course, nothing is more delightful than the straight man telling the audience to fuck off.
Chris Klimek: Well said, Andy. Well said, Benjamin. (Which one of us is the straight man, again?)
Benjamin R. Freed: Jon. He got kicked of the chat room and he can't get back in.
Chris Klimek: I don't envy him the task of editing this.
Benjamin R. Freed: We should buy him a Duck Tour ticket.
Chris Klimek: Least we could do. But most that I WOULD do.
Image, taken in Chicago, courtesy of Senor_Ryan.