Why Conan O'Brien Is the New King of Late Night


There's been a dramatic reversal of fortune in the late-night talk battle. It's hard to imagine there was a time when we all felt sorry for Conan O'Brien. Granted, he was muscled out of his dream job hosting The Tonight Show and replaced by Jay Leno, who apparently feels the same way about that franchise as Charlton Heston felt about his guns.

Since then, the conversation and the ratings have shifted in a way that have almost completely vindicated Coco. Leno's ratings have slid below that of David Letterman's and even lower than Conan's were back when NBC considered his Tonight Show an insolvent crater. Meanwhile, Jon Stewart's Daily Show ratings have topped both network mainstays for the first time in history. The days of The Tonight Show vs. Late Show are long over, and although NBC's exercising its contractual right to keep Conan sidelined seemed like a punishment, it was actually a blessing in disguise. He now gets to waltz back into the late-night fray with a brand-new, exhaustively promoted show just as the paradigm is shifting.

Conan, however, isn't just a triumph of perfect timing, it's also a solid show. Here's why:

It's the same old Coco. Rather than trying to explode the formula, Conan is essentially Conan's Tonight Show on a different network. The set, the band, the monologue, the sidekick—all showed up intact. This isn't a bad thing for Conan fans, even the most ardent of whom probably didn't get to support him as much as they'd have liked to. A late-night talk show is a pretty big commitment for anyone with a job or a social life, and yesterday's topical humor is less than ideal for today's DVR binge. Ideally, a show like Conan is for popping in on, and those who wish they'd gotten more opportunities to do so when he was on NBC can get a look at what they missed.

He's not afraid of NBC. All summer there was speculation about whether Conan would defy NBC's legal headlock on any intellectual property he created when he still worked for them. That meant any of his beloved characters: Conando, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the Masturbating Bear, et al. While Conan teased in interviews that the characters would be back, there was no guarantee that it wasn't more of his ever-present sarcasm. But never fear, fans: Conan showed early on, with a silly sketch featuring the self-love-loving bear, that he wouldn't be cowed into abandoning his most beloved bits. I hope this is the first of many.

He's a rock star. As he did on his farewell show in a duet with Will Ferrell, Conan took the stage and jammed with his musical guest, Jack White. It was a tad self-indulgent, perhaps, but more evidence that Conan's intent with his new show is to make it a reflection of his personality and comic sensibility. And that's why Conan already feels like more fun to watch than his Tonight Show was. It doesn't feel like he's trying to comport himself in a matter befitting a decades-old franchise. For better or worse, he'll do this his way, which is what Team Coco has wanted all along.