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The New ‘Conan’ Isn’t Revolutionary, And That’s Just Fine

In practice, the much-hyped changes Conan made to his show actually feel more like tweaks than disruptions. But they work well enough for him.


The new “Conan” can be explained by the host’s outfit, which was not technically a suit but sure looked like one.

Ahead of the revamped TBS show’s Tuesday debut, O’Brien teased a big shakeup of the late-night format: no suits, no band, no musical guests, no desk. In practice, these much-hyped changes actually feel more like tweaks than disruptions. But they work well enough for O’Brien, who thrives in conversation, and can make a lot out of extended sit-downs with celebrities.

The comedian’s interview with Tom Hanks on Tuesday was proof, allowing space for him to coax an endearing Penny Marshall impression out of the “Big” star that otherwise may never have seen the light of day.

The most serious change to “Conan” is its switch to a half-hour runtime. That’s a big deal. Asked by The New York Times if he still has flexibility within the 30-minute slot, O’Brien replied, “I might shoot whole extra acts afterward that I just put online. There might be nights where I do an hour of content. TBS gets the half-hour version and some of that other half-hour either goes into a different show or is consumed in a different way.”

It’s a smart approach, especially with the goal of courting younger audiences, reached easier with bite-size viral videos. As evidenced by his YouTube channel, O’Brien is highly capable of producing that kind of content.

Nevertheless, other late-night shows (“Watch What Happens Live,” “Desus & Mero,” “Chelsea”)  have pioneered more casual formats before O’Brien, although perhaps this particular defection is more surprising coming from a master of the genre and an alum of network television. An excerpt from a promotional interview O’Brien did with The New York Times turned heads on Twitter this month. Elaborating on his (correct) claim that “eventually, all our graves go unattended,” O’Brien added:

I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] ‘What are you talking about? None of it matters.’ None of it matters? ‘No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.’ It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.

By stripping away the trappings of late-night television, Conan isn’t hoping to break ground so much as liberate himself. He doesn’t care enough to foment a revolution, which is oddly revolutionary in and of itself (especially atop an industry fueled by self-importance).

At the end of the day, Conan still stands up in a theater before a live studio audience, Andy Richter at his side. He still retires after an introduction to tasteful furniture for casual conversation with a famous guest. And, honestly, the guy still looked like he was wearing a suit on Tuesday. If you squinted, you could maybe tell the jacket was leather. But from a distance, you just saw Conan, in a jacket and a tie, telling jokes on a stage.

Not that any of it matters, of course.