Whenever Judge David Ryan writes a new review, he kills a hobo with a hammer.
The distilled best of one of the funniest shows on television…for me to poop on.
The year was 1993. NBC had just completed a messy and very public divorce with David Letterman, who had reinvented the concept of late night television with the ten-year run of his post-Tonight Show ratings-grabber Late Night with David Letterman. Letterman had always wanted to succeed Johnny Carson behind the Tonight Show desk, and thought he had earned the job thanks to his show's success. But it was not to be; the Powers That Be at NBC snubbed Letterman upon Carson's retirement, choosing instead to give the show to stand-up comedian and frequent Tonight Show guest host Jay Leno. Letterman packed up and accepted a huge offer from CBS to move his show opposite Leno's; NBC asserted their intellectual property rights to keep the "Late Night" name and many of the characters developed on the Letterman show. A war was coming…
But meanwhile, NBC had an hour of programming to fill between 12:30 and 1:30 AM on weeknights. Many names were bandied about as possible Letterman replacements (NBC had announced that the show would continue to be called "Late Night"). When the choice came, the broadcasting world was shocked: the job went to an utterly unknown comedy writer from Boston by the name of Conan O'Brien. Who was this guy? How did he get this job? Was he somebody's son-in-law or something?
The answers to those questions weren't particularly encouraging. O'Brien was a Harvard graduate and veteran of the Harvard Lampoon who had written for both Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons prior to his NBC nod. He was widely regarded as an excellent comedy writer, and as an extremely nice guy, but he had no significant experience in front of the camera (other than a few extra-level roles on SNL). Now, he was being asked to carry an hour-long comedy/interview show on network television as his first on-air job. Oh, and he'd be replacing a legend in Letterman. Not a good start for the redhead.
Little did anyone know, but the foundation for an unlikely success story was taking shape. The show would be overseen by Lorne Michaels, who knew a thing or two about late night television, and would be produced by Jeff Ross, who had also produced The Kids in the Hall for Michaels. Max Weinberg, the drummer for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, would be Conan's bandleader. A genial, slightly husky improv actor from Illinois named Andy Richter was hired to be Conan's Ed McMahon-like sidekick. But most importantly, a gaggle of hungry, edgy writers—guys like Robert Smigel, Mike Sweeney, Dino Stamatopolous, Bob Odenkirk (of Mr. Show fame), and Louis C.K., to name but a few—were brought in to write the show with O'Brien.
The show debuted on September 13, 1993—and America was exposed to a friendly guy obviously skilled at physical comedy—and obviously terrified out of his wits. The first show was awkward and somewhat uncomfortable to watch, and the critics were not kind. They all said that Conan seemed nice enough, but that he was woefully unprepared for the job he was taking on.
Well, they were all wrong. Slowly but surely O'Brien gained confidence, and slowly but surely the show built a buzz among the same audience that had made Letterman famous: college kids and young professionals. Richter proved to be a gifted comic actor; although elements of his character were clearly derived from both Frank Conniff (as TV's Frank) on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and John Candy's "William B. Williams" character on SCTV, he quickly added his own unique spin to the Second Banana role and made it his own. The odd, quirky set pieces and recurring characters on Late Night with Conan O'Brien were like nothing else on television—the Masturbating Bear, Pimpbot 5000 (half '50s robot, half '70s blaxploitation pimp), The Coked-Out Werewolf, pictures of celebrities with Clutch Cargo-like superimposed lips, and so forth. But the show's breakout character was Smigel's brainchild: Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Smigel proved that you can say pretty much anything, no matter how insulting or crude, to almost anyone, as long as you use a puppet to say it.
Ten years on, the show has become a minor phenomenon. Far from the certain failure that he seemed back in '93, O'Brien has proven to be a solid late night host in the vein of his predecessor Letterman. The show's humor isn't for everyone—but when it's "on," it's as brilliant as anything going today. Conan is still a bit awkward as an interviewer, but he's made great strides since the show began. And he's still a really, really nice guy.
This disc is a release of the 10th Anniversary Special, taped at New York's Beacon Theater and aired on NBC last fall. Like all anniversary shows, it's mainly a collection of "best of" clips, with occasional guests interspersed. It's also absolutely hysterical. I haven't laughed this hard or this long at a disc since Spinal Tap—and I'd already seen this show when it originally aired. There is absolutely nothing unfunny in this show, except for the credits. From the opening film where Conan gathers up hundreds of fans to come watch the show only to have them all distracted by a sighting of David Lee Roth, to Jack Black's musical ode to Conan, to Ben Stiller heckling Conan from the audience, to Andy Richter's "low-key" appearance (four oiled-up bodybuilders march across stage with "A-N-D-Y" letters, then Richter is lowered from the ceiling in a Thor costume with much pyrotechnics and a couple of babes in tow), it's all good. Very good.
The show is good enough that it alone would justify a purchase of this disc. But NBC and Lions Gate have tacked on some bonus features to sweeten the pot. Two of the extras—"Comedy Shorts" and "Favorite Guest Moments"—are collections of brief bits (the former) and guest comments (the latter) from the show over the years. Neither is very long; each contains about five minutes' worth of material in total. More valuable is the third extra, "Conan on Location." This contains four full-length on-location segments from the show, each roughly 10 minutes long. All four are well worth watching. The best is Conan's take on ABC's Making The Band, which sees him setting up his own boy band and managing their debut single (and image, of course). The bit where he goes to the homes of four actresses (Jeri Ryan, Famke Janssen, Julianna Margulies, and Gina Gershon), with whom he felt he had "connected" on-air, in an attempt to get them in bed is a close second. A gallery of production stills is also included.
My only complaint is—I want more! Why not include the "Fall Foliage with Mr. T" segment? (Brief clips are shown during the Anniversary Show itself, but not nearly enough.) Okay, Triumph is getting his own disc—but couldn't we have more footage of the other recurring characters? More Andy? Interviews with Conan, Andy, Lorne, the writers, and so forth? Maybe they're holding it all out for a super-duper boxed set at some point. We can only hope.
Until then, this disc is a good buy for Conan fans (only $25 for both this and the Triumph disc), and worth a look for people who haven't been exposed to the show or its quirky humor. Now if Fox would only release the late, lamented Andy Richter Controls The Universe on DVD…
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