Can Conan Live Up to His Hiatus Hype?

By REE HINES
|  Friday, Nov 5, 2010  |  Updated 10:30 PM EDT
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Can Conan Live Up to His Hiatus Hype?

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Conan is gearing up for his late-night return.

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In the nine months since Conan O’Brien’s take on NBC's “The Tonight Show” closed shop, loyal fans have waited patiently for his return. That wait is about to come to an end as “Conan,” the funnyman’s new TBS talk show, is on the way.

(TODAYshow.com is a part of msnbc.com, which is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Monday, Nov. 8 marks O’Brien’s third late-night launch. Of course, there’s no denying that this one stands apart from his previous premieres. All eyes will be on “Conan’s” opening effort.

Why wouldn’t they be?

Sure, there might be some viewers who were less than thrilled with O’Brien’s seven-month “Tonight Show” tenure, but no one can deny his absolute gift for hosting his own hiatus hype machine. 

Coco Nation saturation
Well, in fairness to O’Brien’s devoted and conveniently plugged-in enthusiasts known as Team Coco, he had a lot of help.

In fact, the second late-night war was barely underway before Team Coco was on the job with graphics, slogans and meet-ups geared toward keeping O’Brien on the air. When their “I’m With Coco” efforts failed to save his seat, it left O’Brien with a sense of his place in the off-air, online community. Not such a bad place, as it turned out.

It wasn’t long into his hiatus before Conan took advantage of that obvious opportunity with his own witty Twitter feed, now 1.8 million followers strong. Shortly after the Twitter takeover, a new Team Coco, this time made up of O’Brien’s official promotion department, hit the Web with their sudden social media omnipresence

That was just the beginning of the barrage.

In order to keep fan interest at its peak and make the most of a contractual clause that prevented him from returning to television prior to September, O’Brien — as well as a slew of his old on-air pals — embarked on the 30-city “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television” tour.

O’Brien announced his upcoming and then-untitled TBS show just before performing his first off-air gig. Cue the viral-video style ads. A lot of them

The all-new old Conan
All of that promo action has set the bar pretty high for O’Brien’s return to television. After all, those ads and 140-characters-or-less snaps promise a certain kind of humor to come. And it’s a style the host’s longtime fans know very well.

That’s not “The Tonight Show’s” tamed down O’Brien writhing on his desk or cracking “Conosexuals” jokes. “Conan” gives fans hope for the return of “Late Night” Conan — Conan 1.0. There’s an important distinction between the two versions of the same towering redhead. One tweaked his comedic gift to suit the somewhat more conservative, mainstream style of the legendary show he inherited. The other was all about making a name for himself and making his own rules.

The latter led to classic sketches, such as Celebrity Secrets, and the creation of uncomfortably loveable characters, such as Pimpbot 5000 and a certain self-satisfying bear. In other words, it was O’Brien at his best. 

Just how much further the envelope can be pushed on basic cable is yet to be seen, but given the fact that O’Brien owns his upcoming show, he’ll gain a creative control and freedom he never had on broadcast television. A freer, less censored O’Brien can’t be a bad thing.

The great unknown
But it can be one big question mark. O’Brien has stated he hopes to infuse his upcoming late-night show with the fresh feel of his on-the-road show. Beyond that, even he seems unsure of what the future holds.

When Entertainment Weekly recently asked if those old aforementioned characters that viewers know and love will make an appearance on “Conan,” O’Brien revealed that even he doesn’t have the answer to that yet, thanks to who-owns-what concerns. 

“You could see me get arrested on the air,” O’Brien said. “We’re not sure yet exactly which character in the past can and can’t show up.”

So new characters are likely on the horizon, as are new skits. Not unexpected news — certainly not bad news — but not tried-and-true material, either. It’s uncharted territory. It’s what makes the wait for “Conan” that much more exciting. 

But will the wait be worth it?
Of course, that’s the inevitably tricky part of creating the perfect hype storm. There’s the need to one day live up to it. Can “Conan” fulfill nine months worth of buzzed-about potential? Can O’Brien bring back the magic that once made him the obvious successor to “The Tonight Show” throne? Can his legion of loyal followers find TBS in their cable listings? Who knows?

No matter what happens with the ratings or the critics in the weeks to come, it seems a safe bet to say the premiere night of “Conan” can’t lose. Even if the experiment in shifting the late-night landscape bombs (perish the thought), the hype itself is all it takes to sell O’Brien’s first hour in the basic cable biz.

Ree Hines has Coco faith and totally believes the hype. Follow @ReeHines and chime in with your own “Conan” pre-show opinion.

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