The revenge of Conan O'Brien

by Mary McNamara

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

21 January 2010


LOS ANGELES — In many ways, it’s been a pretty good week for Conan O’Brien. On Monday night, Martin Scorsese offered to put him in his new HBO series, and Tuesday night Quentin Tarantino said he’d help O’Brien follow the director’s template and make a revenge movie. “They pushed him too far,” Tarantino growled, imagining the trailer. “They made promises they had no intention of keeping. They took his show, they killed his dog. ...They had their way and now Conan will have his.”

O’Brien’s even become the “star” of a Chinese animated video attempt to explain the whole late-night mess. The clip, in which he morphs into the Incredible Hulk, made the rounds on the Internet and pleased O’Brien so much that he decided to air it Tuesday night, claiming that now, at last, he understood what had happened.

“And we wonder why they’re beating us,” quipped Andy Richter, proving that maybe he could have become a great sidekick, given enough time.

All this on top of pro-Conan rallies, the Team Coco T-shirts and the ever increasing applause the moment he appears on stage. Indeed, O’Brien has become so universally beloved, you have to wonder where all these fans were hiding during the last seven months as “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” opened to mediocre ratings and steadily slid. While it’s touching to hear his fans frantically applaud, as if O’Brien were Tinker Bell and could be saved if only enough of us believed, simply watching the show on a regular basis might have been more effective.

O’Brien, of course, is past all that, joking as he took the stage Wednesday night that he was “just three days away from the biggest drinking binge in history.”

As he nears the end — “Thursday,” he said, “or Friday depending on what the lawyers say” — he has developed something of a shtick, buoyed by the intoxication of crisis and more than a little bitterness. When Tarantino claimed the strangulation was the most violent thing one could do to another person, O’Brien begged to differ. “I’ve got another one for ya,” he said, and he was clearly only half-kidding.

Once again, O’Brien referenced news reports that he could not legally say anything bad about NBC. While Monday he circumvented this by singing his criticism, on Wednesday, he went bilingual, calling NBC executives “brainless sons of goats who eat money and crap trouble” in Spanish. There was another clip of great moments in “Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” history. (Strangely, this pattern also seems to involve an “Avatar” joke followed by a reference to the death of the founder of Taco Bell, but hey, Conan, whatever gets you through the next few days.)

A host to the end, O’Brien dutifully interviewed his guests and plugged their films — along with Tarantino, Paul Bettany made an appearance — but there is no denying that these final shows are playing more like an Irish wake than anything else, with everyone eager to laugh and tell scandalous stories. Bettany got bleeped twice and even Colin Firth spent his time on Tuesday night making penis and anus jokes.

And if anyone out there didn’t understand just what was going on, comedian and favored O’Brien guest Norm MacDonald showed up with a gift basket he claimed he’d bought in June. As he read the card — “Congratulations Conan on finally securing your place as the permanent host of ‘The Tonight Show. That’s something they can never take away from you” — the words were funny, ironic and genuinely sad. NBC’s late-night mess is not the worst thing happening in the world today, but it may be the most unnecessary.

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