Conan O'Brien's upcoming Fox Network TBS talk show has precisely the same chance for success as Sarah Palin’s desperate desire to become the most powerful man on earth.
No question about it, his current live road show is SRO thanks to both, a) Conan’s successful challenge to Dane Cook for the loyalty of the Acne Mafia, and, b) the ineluctable reality that O’Brien currently happens to be the media flavor-of-the-week. This rosy pair of factoids, however, guarantees only that Conan will make a ton of money from his snide peripatetic revenge show against NBC, the one so cutely named, The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour.
Yeah, like that’s the problem. Legal. Conan O’Brien is legally prohibited from being funny, and Barack Obama is musically prohibited from being a great bowler, And Kathy Lee Gifford is…never mind.
After the tour, Conan gets to go back on television, and neither prohibition nor competition is going to be the torpedo that sinks O’Brien’s dinghy. His problem is guns. He’s lacking the most critical pair in every comedian’s holster, Timing and Delivery.
TBS can, and will, spend many millions of American dollars on publicity, public appearances, public relations, and public announcements, yet none of that expensive horsehockey will keep viewers from stomping their remotes back to Letterman or Leno or Fallon or Kimmel or Ferguson when they get fed up with O’Brien’s smug amateurism, and we haven’t even mentioned Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert yet.
Conan seems too busy to notice such factors exist. I give him his due. He’s a good comedy writer, no question about it. He’s proved it, but neither timing nor delivery is among the writer’s hardware. Those two pistols have to be earned, and the only way to do it is by stepping onto a stage night after night and defeating, among other gut-twisters, rejection. Rejection! It scares O’Brien freckle-less.
Conan’s disregard for the importance of due-paying has been painfully apparent ever since he first grinned his way onstage with the conviction that people like to watch him twitch.
Listen up, O’Brien’s band of merry suits. Twitching may have killed ‘em at the Hasty Pudding Editorial Planning Brunch, but it won't fly with people who have grown-up wants, needs, and programming options.
What’s left is Conan’s tweenie/teen bubblegummer base, and we all know how fickle they can be, especially Janice Randall, who wouldn’t go to a movie on Friday night with somebody who just got a new sport jacket with suede on it even though I heard her say twice that she thought suede was neat for coats and shoes, and besides…let’s just drop it, okay?
Here’s the final fatal nail. We bleary-eyed viewers often make late-night program choices based on which guests are being interviewed on which shows. Maybe there's a writer whose face I might be curious to see, maybe there’s a singer I’d like to hear talk, maybe an actor I’d like to know more about, and maybe one of these is someone no other show can give me at the moment. But will Conan O’-ain’t-I-cute-Brien let me hear them?
Nope, no chance, because just as the guests reach the punch-lines of their carefully-prepared stories, Conan suddenly thinks of (what he thinks) is a hysterical remark, which he immediately blurts out while his guest is still talking. This, of course, steps on the guest’s way-funnier-than-Conan anecdote, and the viewers become the losers, and it’ll happen again, night after night.
Oh come on. How many times has O’Brien actually been so rude?
I believe the number is…um, repeatedly.
It’s all about Conan, it’ll always be all about Conan, and Conan just ain’t got the training, courtesy, or guns.
Mike Price is a long-time newspaper columnist, talk show host, and screenwriter who appears as a standup comedy headliner for top clubs and casinos across the country.