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Conan O’Brien May Be Leaving Late Night, But His Career Evolution is as Timely as Ever

Conan O’Brien May Be Leaving Late Night, But His Career Evolution is as Timely as Ever

After 28 years in late night — the last 10 at TBS — it was long past time for Conan O’Brien to get out of the daily talk show grind.

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These days, O’Brien is probably more celebrated as a successful podcaster (“Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” and producer of several more), the host of a popular run of travel specials (“Conan Without Borders”), his clips on social media and for just being Conan O’Brien, than he is for a cable TV show.

His talker “Conan,” which had already been downsized to 30 minutes in 2019, remained his home base. But it’s not where most fans get their Conan fix these days.

While it’s worth wondering whether O’Brien is willingly giving up that daily grind, as he switches to a weekly variety show for HBO Max, perhaps the bigger question might be: Should anyone still be into that grind? Late night has long become “next day TV”: Viewers catch the highlights, and share them, via YouTube and other social media.

Sure, people still watch the shows — and some, like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, continue to do it quite successfully. (At least, by 2020 standards.) But there’s no reason why these shows still need to be nightly, or an hour long. And actually, you probably didn’t even notice that most of them now only air four times a week, with a repeat (usually on Fridays) — or that, during the first several months of the pandemic, Kimmel had reduced his show to half an hour.

The incumbent Emmy winner, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” airs just once a week, as does O’Brien’s TBS colleague Samantha Bee on “Full Frontal.” Showtime’s buzzy newcomer “Desus & Mero” runs twice weekly. In this saturated age of too much TV (including too much talk), that feels just about right.

Talk had already been splintering into two camps — single-topic, news based shows and more variety-centric shows — before the Trump administration threw things into a bit of disarray. It’s too soon to tell whether a new White House will restore that balance. But regardless of that, O’Brien had always focused more on comedy and variety on his shows, which makes his new weekly series on HBO Max an obvious evolution. (Not to mention the fact that audiences are already swiftly migrating to streaming and digital from linear cable.) For fans who are still eager to share clips of him when that new series launches, Conan is Conan, no matter the show or its platform.

Obviously the entire business was upended in the 10 years since the infamous moment when NBC bungled its “Tonight Show” transition from Jay Leno to O’Brien, and then back to Leno again. When NBC pushed O’Brien aside, he was heartbroken: Not only was the “Tonight Show” the pinnacle of the late-night world, but he was suddenly without a daily talk show for the first time since landing the “Late Night” gig in 1993 as a young, unknown TV writer whose greatest achievement may have been penning “The Simpsons’” Monorail episode.

At the time of O’Brien’s NBC exit, social media was still in its infancy. Viral videos were just taking off, and O’Brien jumped into that world to keep his fans engaged, particularly as he embarked on his famed “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour.”

There was no question that O’Brien was itching to get back to late night, but with Fox affiliates not willing to give up those time slots and syndication’s poor track record in the format (even “The Arsenio Hall Show” only lasted five years), his options were slim. That’s why Turner and its broad-based networks — which were programmed much like broadcast — ultimately made the most sense.

As Fox struggled to come up with a proposal that worked, Turner boss Steve Koonin came up with an enticing pitch: “We looked and said there’s a once in a lifetime transformational talent in Conan,” Koonin said at the time. (Credit to comedian George Lopez, who had already hosted “Lopez Tonight” for TBS in the 11 p.m. slot, and convinced O’Brien it was OK to come and knock his show to midnight. Sadly for Lopez, “Lopez Tonight” was eventually canceled.)

In a weird way, it worked out for O’Brien: He was once again back on nightly TV, and once again the self-deprecating underdog building something from scratch — without the same ratings pressure as there had been on NBC. “In three months I’ve gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I’m headed to basic cable,” O’Brien quipped at the time. “My plan is working perfectly.”

O’Brien had a new energy to reinvent himself, developing the “Team Coco” brand — which had evolved out of fans protesting his NBC exit — into a digital platform. And to make more noise, he began to take the show out of the studio more, to Comic-Con and then in those travel segments that turned into “Conan Without Borders.”

O’Brien more or less noted that when we spoke to him in 2016: “One of the things I’ve found is over time, any way you can make it new for yourself is key,” he said. “When I was coming along in 1993, the job was to become a classic host in the Carson style. It’s a format that I still really love, but the downside is you can feel chained to your desk. Now I get the best of both worlds.”

Already in 2010, pundits were questioning the future of talk shows, as it became clear that the under-40 crowd didn’t view the shows as daily habits the way their parents did. At the time, it was Adult Swim that was starting to dominate the young demo — but this was all before streaming even entered the picture as the ultimate competitor to traditional late night.

O’Brien managed to get another decade out of the form, and reinvent himself in the process. In hindsight, it was smart to name his TBS show “Conan.” As a comedian, a host and yes, a brand, Conan is going nowhere, even if his nightly show is going away. Fans may not be asking anymore what “Conan” is up to, but they’ll still be asking what Conan is doing.

Written by Oli Coleman

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