Conan O'Brien returns to late night TV

NPR – Real | Windows | MP3


He was down. He was out. But now Conan O'Brien is back. The late night TV star's new show starts tomorrow night on TBS. And as baseball fans saw during the playoffs, Conan took to the air in a blimp to promote his show.

Mr. CONAN O'BRIEN (Late Night Talk Show Host): Hi there. Conan O'Brien promoting my new show on TBS. So, we asked those guys to get me a cigarette boat and four ladies in bikinis. What do they give me instead? An orange blimp and this guy right here. What'd you get this for, successfully landing in a light mist?

Unidentified Man: Actually, this one was for being with your mom. Mr. O'BRIEN: OK. All right.

NEARY: Joining us now to give us the play-by-play on late night TV moves is Jeff Jensen, senior writer for Entertainment Weekly. Welcome back to the show, Jeff.

Mr. JEFF JENSEN (Senior Writer, Entertainment Weekly): Thanks for having me.

NEARY: So, Conan returns to TV Monday night at 11, but this show will be on cable, not on one of the broadcast networks. So, is that a gamble for him?

Mr. JENSEN: It is something of a gamble, but also it's a great opportunity for him. I mean, there are a lot of people who felt that when he was the star of "The Tonight Show" that it was a little bit more of a conservative, restricting creative environment for sort of a loose, shooting-from-the-hip, kind of edgy comedian like Conan O'Brien. Being on basic cable in an environment where there's a lot less pressure on him and a little bit more creative freedom could allow Conan to sort of be a more unleashed creative persona. NEARY: What do we know about the show so far?

Mr. JENSEN: We know very little and, in fact, that's one of the reasons why a lot of people want to tune in. They kind of want to know what kind of show is Conan going to bring to air? Is it going to be more like his 12:30 late show on NBC? Is it going to be a lot like his college campus tour that he did this past summer? I think it will be. We're all very interested to know - is he going to be able or is he going to try to do versions of his classic bits that are kind of now owned by NBC?

NEARY: Well, you know, all the drama around this new show began a long time ago when NBC agreed to give Conan O'Brien Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" seat, but as we all know, that didn't go over too well, did it?

Mr. JENSEN: No, it didn't work out well at all. They moved Jay Leno out of "The Tonight Show" and they gave him his own 10 p.m. variety show at a time when Jay Leno was doing really, really well on "The Tonight Show." And I think that NBC really regretted promising Conan "The Tonight Show" and then creating this sort of, like, line of succession, like years in advance. By the time that the plan finally got enacted, Jay was actually still king of late night and they didn't really want to make that move but they had to make that move.

So, they moved Jay into the 10:00 slot and Jay failed at the 10:00 slot. He wasn't pulling in the ratings that they needed in primetime, and meanwhile Conan was kind of struggling against "The Late Show with David Letterman." So, they made this risky, unpopular move that backfired in their faces. They removed Conan, they put Jay back into "The Tonight Show" and now, today, a year later, Jay's actually pulling in fewer people than "The Late Show with David Letterman" and he's not doing as well as Conan did at this time last year.

Jon Stewart over on Comedy Central is doing better than all of them - at least he did in the month of October. So, yeah, that move didn't really work out for NBC.

NEARY: So, the whole late night landscape seems to be changing. What about David Letterman? Is he just sitting around watching this go on and enjoying it or does he have some problems as well?

Mr. JENSEN: I think he's pretty amused by all of this moving around. He really wanted "The Tonight Show" job when it originally went to Jay Leno many years ago and he was really disappointed by all that. He went to CBS and he's had his ups and he's had his downs. Right now, he's kind of, you know, up and I think he's pretty amused by everything.

NEARY: You know, what do people think about the future of the sort of traditional late-night TV format? Is there a future for that sort of traditional, sitting back on the couch talking to TV stars format?

Mr. JENSEN: Yeah, I do. I think it's such a stable part of television and it's cheap. You know, the networks make a lot of money off of the late night shows. I think that there's going to be a long future for this kind of thing, as long as it continues to generate this kind of revenue for networks.

NEARY: OK. One other thing got to ask you about: Conan's beard. He started growing one when he left "The Tonight Show." Any reports on whether we'll see it or not?

Mr. JENSEN: I think this is the burning issue for Conan O'Brien fans. Like, you know, wither the beard. I want to know if there's a betting line on whether or not he's going to shave it on air either on his first show on Monday or sometime during the week. You know, maybe he can, like, you know, shave it in stages. You know, like, there can be, like, a little bit every day and by the end of the first week he'll be clean shaven.

He has said he's going to keep the beard, but, you know, I'm riveted by the beard. I want to know.

NEARY: OK. Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly. Thanks so much for being with us, Jeff.

Mr. JENSEN: Thanks for having me.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio . All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.