Comedy review: Conan O'Brien among the faithful
EUGENE, ORE. -- Oh dear. We all knew Conan O’Brien had been hurting in recent weeks, but did anyone expect that he would grow a Robinson Crusoe beard and put on enough weight to earn a place on “The Biggest Loser”? Or that he’d be wallowing on the floor of his L.A. home amid a trash heap of empty pizza boxes and rattling beer bottles? Coco partisans, I hate to break this to you, but I’m pretty sure I heard his daughter ask, “Daddy, why do you smell like pee?”
This parody of misery was revealed to us in an introductory film clip at Monday night’s kickoff of O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour” at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene. A hilarious portrait of an unemployed talk show host hitting rock bottom, the bit included the sight of a decadently bored O’Brien spreading peanut butter between his toes for his dog to lick.
Turns out, this montage of suffering and degradation was the funniest thing in this traveling variety show, which isn’t so much Conan new and unplugged as Conan old and uncorked. But it’s nice to have this genial clown back anyway we can get him. Few entertainers possess the ironic chops to transform a riotous auditorium into a dorm party so good-natured that dud gags wind up fetching as many laughs as the shrewdest zingers.
But thank heavens he signed that deal with TBS, securing himself a beachhead in the late-night chat wars, otherwise some of the routines might have been borderline pathetic. The spectacle of O’Brien doing a version of Cake’s cover of “I Will Survive“ — belting out the sentiment that he has “more shows to give” — wouldn’t have tickled as much were he still waiting for Fox to rescue him from exile.
The show is a both a love-fest with fans who stood with him after NBC gave him the hook on “The Tonight Show” and an insurance policy against his brand fading from relevance while he’s contractually barred from TV until September.
Payback isn’t what he’s after. He vowed at the start of the show that there would be “no negative shots against those other guys.” It’s not that he’s made peace with what’s happened to him (his impersonation of an evil network chieftain dreaming up a reality series about celebrities who eat bark doesn’t suggest forgiveness), but he’s all too aware that “lawyers are listening.”
It’s really a shame because Jay Leno supplied him with material for a lifetime. (Good comics have a Zen-like appreciation for adversity, recycling suffering and humiliation into shtick.) Still, he exploited his anxiety about names and characters that his former employer may own. (To obviate any legal dustups, he transformed before our very eyes “the masturbating bear” into “the self-pleasuring panda.”) And all these restrictions on him have a way of shoring up his image as the TV rebel with the Howdy Doody looks and the asymmetrical wit who somehow managed to crash the network party.
As O’Brien went from college cut-up poster boy to the patron saint of raw deals, his connection with his base only intensified. At the Hult Center, an orgy of Twittering and cellphone videoing in the audience ran parallel with O’Brien’s act, which naturally included Andy Richter in the Ed McMahon role, as well as staff writer Deon Cole in standup mode, a song from the band Spoon and a curious cameo by Jack McBrayer from “30 Rock,” who showed up to pull a lever in a gag featuring preposterously violent Chuck Norris clips.
The “I’m With Coco” Facebook campaign was alive and well in the crowd that gathered to cheer on its hero, who’s back in fighting trim and not afraid to don a tight paisley leather ensemble in an homage to Eddie Murphy. O’Brien’s demographic may be narrow — many in attendance looked as though they had scheduled this outing between a kegger and a calculus midterm — but it doesn’t stint on the adulation.
Sporting a scruffy beard that he’s openly insecure about, O’Brien kidded about his lack of marketable skills — what does a man who has spent his life aiming for one television job do after he’s lost it? Well, he goes through the requisite stages of grief, an eight-step process, in O’Brien’s estimation, that includes denial, anger, paranoia and “buying everything that Amazon says I will also like.”
There’s wasn’t much patter about his new gig, except to announce the bombshell that he’s accepted the position of assistant manager at Banana Republic in charge of the corduroy department. And then there was the awkward moment in which after tonguing the sweaty face of trombonist “La Bamba,” he couldn’t help wondering how the new suits might react.
But basically, he just wanted to sling a guitar around his shoulder and stoke the good vibe of the crowd with humorous songs and anecdotes. “I’ll never forget the support as long as I live,” he said, and to prove it he strode into the audience during his encore, thanking and high-fiving all those who helped him through the “craziness and weirdness and turbulence.”
Photo: Conan O'Brien, top, on opening night of his "Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour" in Eugene, Ore. Above, O'Brien with Andy Richter. Credit: Michael Buckner/Getty Images