You may not have heard this, but a few months ago Conan O’Brien lost his gig hosting The Tonight Show to Jay Leno. No, really. Apparently it was a clusterfuck of Hollywood drama, inept network management, internet campaigns, Nielsen ratings, and the perceived lust of the unwashed masses for the boring, tired comedy of a man whose best-known bit is reading newspaper typos.
Despite the self-deprecation and low-level martyrdom melodrama that swirled around Conan in the aftermath of NBC’s reneging, the great redhead’s ensuing tour is looking more and more like a victory lap. The chain of events garnered great media coverage and galvanized his dormant fan base, allowing the quickly thrown-together 32-city tour to sell out without a dime being spent on promotion. Marching into November, Coco will still be wielding public goodwill and a fat settlement as he begins his new job at TBS, not only with a longer leash for his content, but with complete ownership of his show and all its creative properties.
Not exactly the unluckiest man in showbiz.
As for that public goodwill, you’d be hard-pressed to find more of it on the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour” than Conan’s stop in Boston. As his stereotypical Irish appearance may suggest, Conan grew up in Boston and even attended college at Harvard, just across the Charles River in Cambridge. Multiplied by the fact that his comedy career centered in New York and L.A., the comedian’s first hometown show was a lovefest of all things Beantown.
Walking on-stage at the Wang Theater in a Paul Pierce Celtics jersey to support the basketball team’s 2010 championship bid, Conan mused, “Thank God, there’s not a game tonight or you’d be yelling at me to put it on the big screen. ‘Put the game on! Shut up! Stand in the corner and shut up!’ ” He then confessed that living in L.A. made him homesick for that abuse, saying that he occasionally hired an actor to put on a Bruins jacket and shove him while calling him “queeahh.”
Conan also joked that, due to his large Irish family attending for free, he was only making $55 from his two sold-out performances in Boston. We got to know a little more about the family during a parody of “Polk Salad,” an old Southern song of poverty and hard times popularized by Elvis Presley. With the music of The Legally Prohibited Band churning and backup singers The Coquettes sashaying, Conan sang of his own hard times growing up in Brookline — “an affluent suburb of Boston/ Most people were upper class/ We O’Briens were upper-middle class… It was hell.” He went on to bemoan his “poor mama… a lawyer at a prestigious law firm, she made partner very quickly, pulled in a couple-hundred-thousand-dollars a year,” and his “no-good daddy… a microbiologist who worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in downtown Boston, which is affiliated with the World Health Organization.”
The self-deprecating stylings that have branded Conan’s comedy served as a running theme. Perhaps the biggest laugh of the show came when the pasty string-bean emerged stage-right in an exact replica of the purple suit Eddie Murphy wore in his 80s special Raw. Conan also made light of his peculiar situation, with several bits on his recent misfortune at NBC. The show opened with a video chronicling the past few months of his life. A closeup shot reveals Conan with long, unkempt hair, a long scraggly beard, and a dead-eyed stare. As the camera slowly widens, we see a substantial (fake) weight gain, numerous half-eaten pizzas, and empty beer bottles surrounding him as he lies on the floor. When a ringing phone interrupts his wallowing, Conan springs toward the phone, answering “JOB?!? TV JOB?!?” He continues to mope around the house to the tune of “All By Myself” (of course), having a few pathetic exchanges with his wife and then daughter, who walks away yelling “Mommy! Daddy smells like pee!”
Another video featured Conan sporting a cheap bald cap and glasses to play Generic Network Executive. Evil Exec strokes a token white cat while insulting the “sad little stage show,” and asking “Do you miss television? Well television doesn’t miss you! … We’re now one of the top-17 broadcast networks.” Exec then kills the cat by petting too hard, tosses it aside and has another handed to him.
In a musical number, Conan sings his own version of Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again,” replacing the lyrics with “My own show again. I just can’t wait to have my own show again. On any network, even Oxygen.” And in what has become a running joke since his appearance at Google, a squeaky impression of a Tonight Show host-that-shall-not-be-named led Conan to assure the audience that the imitation was of “rapper Ludacris,” since he is contractually bound not to bad-mouth NBC.
A number of guests added to the night’s festivities. Former co-host, announcer, and “bosom chum” Andy Richter often shared the stage throughout the night, and one of Conan’s writers, Deon Cole, delivered a short set mid-show. Noting that he was Conan’s only black writer and has to field all of the staff’s “black questions,” he asked the crowd if there was an activity they hate to do around black people. “Dancing” was the answer, to which Cole responded “And we hate watching you dance.” He continued, “One lady told me she didn’t like to go to the ATM with black people around. I said, ‘Me too.’” Earlier, eccentric opening act Reggie Watts had the crowd laughing and scratching their heads at the same time. Armed with an array of voices and accents, the dead-pan afro’d comedian/musician toyed with effects pedals to loop his voice, creating a beat first, then layering more melodies and noises on top of it. The bizarre raps and songs Watts then unleashes are unforgettably funny.
Noting the venue, all the comedians made requisite cracks about “the Wang.” Conan intimated that, while growing up, “It was my dream to perform in a giant penis.” Watts observed that we were in “one of the biggest Wangs in the world.” (By my research, the Wang accommodated about 3,600 this night. The Wang was busy.)
Boston barroom staple and unofficial Red Sox house band the Dropkick Murphys also made an appearance to belt out the anthemic “Shipping Up To Boston” (a.k.a. that accordion song from The Departed that’s everywhere now).
Some old favorites from Late Night came along for the ride, as intellectual property rights seem to remain unsettled. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog mailed in a hastily made video with (intentionally) poor dubbings of city-specific barbs. The Walker Texas Ranger Lever was rechristened the Walker Texas Ranger Handle, and the crowd was treated to a number of classic scenes, including the infamous “Walker told me I have AIDS” clip.
Even the Masturbating Bear joined everyone on stage for a Dropkick Murphys-aided encore of “The Weight” by The Band and old rockabilly number “Forty Days” by Ronnie Hawkins. The crowd of fans happily ate it up as the finale went into full swing. Strobe lights pulsed, a giant inflatable bat swayed and smiled awkwardly (bought second-hand from Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell Tour, they claimed), and Conan ran through the theater as giant balls — featuring his face — dropped onto the crowd, to be batted around Flaming Lips-style. It was a helter-skelter send-off, and it was more than fitting that, after a night featuring some wonderfully juvenile humor, Coco’s Wang performance ended with the audience playing with his balls.
Who knows what life at TBS will bring, but the past fiasco and ensuing tour have proven that Conan will always have followers, be it on TV, YouTube, Twitter, or the stage.
[Photo: Senor Ryan]