After all the buildup, Conan O’Brien’s return to television on TBS Monday night was a modest, lowkey and slightly awkward affair – Seth Rogen, the first celebrity guest on what is now called Conan, was promoting The Green Hornet, a movie that doesn’t even open until January. Both he and O’Brien seemed aware that they had committed an unstated, inexplicable breach of talk-show protocol. It was as if Rogen had been expected to bring coffee cake and instead showed up with a plate of uncooked ribs.
But O’Brien is still dealing with the fallout of the past year’s talk-show battle with NBC and his former home, The Tonight Show. Moving to TBS at 11 p.m. ET, he’s a bit like one of those Shakespearean princes who get bounced from their kingdom and have to reestablish their court on an island or in a forest or on a cul de sac. His charm, intelligence and humor will probably win out. Here are three encouraging signs that Conanian silliness will live on:
1.The new set. O’Brien’s NBC set was a beautiful place, with a gleaming curtain and a wall of what looked like Tiffany glass. If anything, it was too beautiful. This one is much simpler, and a bit flakier. Behind the furniture was – for no particular reason – a backdrop of an ocean bay lit by a large moon and flanked by a shoreline with little blinking buildings. It looked like Miami Beach plopped down in the middle Los Angeles. The joke was that the moon could be made to move around by remote – it’s just a big, stupid prop. Big, stupid props are never a mistake. “It’s got that incredible realistic lunar wobble,” sidekick Andy Ritcher said, as the moon made its ungainly way across the night sky. Then O’Brien cackled like a mad scientist.
2. The first official guest, preceding Rogen, was the curator of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in Washington. She’d “won” a contest that included the pope and the reunited cast of the Fat Albert movie as nominees. She was quickly paraded past O’Brien and then out onto the back lot.
3. At the start of the hour, Richter announced that the show’s episode was called “Baa Baa Blackmail,” as if this weren’t Conan but some old rerun of Jake and the Fatman. I also loved when Richter put on a Conan Halloween mask and commented, “It’s very authentic. Inside it smells like tears.”