Coco Hype Machine Flies Over the Edge

O'Brien's funny car plunge video is latest gimmick in a viral campaign that includes a blimp. But will his new show float?

Conan O'Brien's comeback TV show doesn't debut until next month – but he's seemingly everywhere these days.

The comic and his Team Coco are tweeting away (“To be honest – so far my Rocktober has been more of a SmoothJazztober”), posting frequently to Facebook (download his new Vanity Fair print ad!) and uploading a steady stream of videos (the latest, a takeoff on an action movie car-off-a-cliff stunt, is showing signs of going viral).

Then there's that bright orange blimp, matching O'Brien's carrot top and emblazoned with his first name, traversing much of country. “You can’t run from a blimp,” the promo’s tag line declares.

It’s an apt stab at a catchphrase – particularly because O’Brien began his doomed stint on “The Tonight Show” 16 months ago with a memorable opening gag in which he sprinted from New York to Los Angeles.

With his new TBS show set to debut Nov. 8 – a date ingrained into the brain of anyone within viewing distance of TV or computer in recent weeks – O’Brien is still running as fast as he can. But where he ends up is anybody’s guess.

O’Brien, though, is leaving little to chance: taking a webpage from his “Late Night” successor, Jimmy Fallon, he’s flooding the Internet, hoping to attract the type of the young viewers who rallied to his support after his ugly feud with NBC and Jay Leno went public.

Long before taking over for O’Brien last year, Fallon spent weeks building an audience online. Fallon’s efforts appear to be paying off in the long term: his ratings are up, and he recently was named late-night TV’s most web savvy host by PeekScore  – even before his “History of Rap” medley with Justin Timberlake exploded (note: if you want your funny music video to go viral, just call Justin).

O’Brien comes to his new host's seat with obvious baggage – and challenges. He's cultivating young viewers, but also needs to regain his core audience, which includes folks who were college age or older when he began his first show in 1993. He obviously doesn't do well with the older, set-in-their-tastes Leno audience.

O’Brien’s comedy act is a balancing act – embracing the new, while staying rooted in the self-effacing, smart silliness that’s earned him a dedicated following, if not necessarily mass appeal. In one of the many promos for his new program, O’Brien asks and answers his own question: “Are you ready for a whole new kind of late night television? Good – me neither"

The same old show, though, might not work against his 11 p.m. to midnight competition, which includes Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who are cut from a similar comedic cloth, even if the programs’ formats differ. Then again, time slot doesn’t mean what it used to: Stewart and Colbert know that their show highlights often are viewed the next day via the Internet – something O’Brien clearly recognizes.

His latest promotional video has surpassed 700,000 hits on YouTube in less than a week. In the spot, also shown in movie theaters, O’Brien drives off a cliff in a car laden with explosives – and popcorn kernels.

“That was expensive,” he says, after emerging from the fiery wreckage.

So is TBS' gamble. Time will tell whether O’Brien can comeback from one of the most infamous crash-and-burn episodes in TV history. Meanwhile, look up for his blimp – and look below for his clever car-crash video:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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