Twenty Years In The Cone Zone

On this date in 1993, Conan O’Brien made his debut as host of NBC’s “Late Night,” a program many people didn’t think could or should continue without gap-toothed treasure David Letterman. Unlike “The Tonight Show,” which passed through a few sets of hands before it found Johnny Carson, “Late Night” at this juncture had only seen Letterman. The eleven year old outing was soaked in Dave’s DNA, seen by most as an extension of the sarcastic Indiana-bred genius himself. How could “Late Night with David Letterman” have a replacement? How could that replacement be an unknown entity named Conan?

As a fourteen year old Letterman stan at the time, these thoughts certainly swept through my noggin. Conan hooked me from the get-go, though, with that brilliant “Good Luck, Lotta Pressure!” cold open on his first “Late Night.” Talk about a perfect response to the avalanche of criticism and uncertainty the guy was facing. The execution is flawless, too. More importantly, “Lotta Pressure!” set the tone for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” This guy wasn’t trying to project Dave’s oddball detachment. If Letterman was your older brother, the guy who for all his charm you knew would never really let you inside, Conan arrived as your chipper school chum, a kid at your level who wanted to make you laugh so neither of you felt alone and weird anymore.

And such was “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” Though it debuetd at a time when basic cable comedy was entering a golden age, most nights you’d be hard-pressed to beat the clubhouse atmosphere coming from NBC’s 12:30 slot. This is the show that centered itself around a shit-talking dog puppet for a stretch, a Rickles clone that seemed too bizarre/amateurish to make any kind of cultural dent. Yet this puppet feuded with Eminem, this puppet was sued by a dot com, this puppet released an album. There’s another Conan/Dave difference. If Letterman were ten years younger he’d be the one bickering with rappers and getting in Internet entanglements. Conan has always seemed more than happy to let his inmates run the asylum.

That said, I’m not gonna sit here and pretend I wasn’t crushed when “Late Night” sold more ad time and could no longer allow Conan to just riff for a few minutes at his desk after the monologue but before the first comedy bit. Some of the funniest stuff he ever said and did was in that pocket. To wit: the Chocolate Lucky Charms spiel from 2005. “They took Lucky Charms, the most decadent horrible cereal of all time, and they made it CHAK-LET!”

This will probably sound stupid and crazy considering all the real problems going on in our world, but watching Conan get chewed up and spit out by NBC is 2010 really wounded me. It was the ball going through Buckner’s legs in Game Six. Sure, Conan rebounded, his TBS show is often as good as anything he did at 30 Rock, but it’s not the same. Turning on the tv that seven months he had “Tonight,” it just felt like victory. They didn’t chase this guy off to another channel. Conan O’Brien had graduated. To watch it go down in flames like it did…well, it wasn’t fun or funny like it usually is to watch something go down in flames. A shitty Stooges album I can handle. This, not so much.

On the other hand, seven months is such a small sliver of a two decade span. The positive far outweighs the negative. And who knows how far Conan will go into the future? I’m not a big routine type of person but I’m happy to imagine Conan popping up on whatever dumb gadget we’re watching tv on in ten years. I imagine it’ll need regular tire rotations and some sort of gravity-defying liquid to keep it “alive.”

But I digress. Thanks for all the yuks, O’Brien. The pressure’s off. Have a good show tonight.

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