Everything new is old again. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Conan O’Brien’s long awaited re-emergence on late night television was never going to live up to the six–odd months of anticipation that preceded it. But this week’s premiere does give us a chance to look at what exactly we were anticipating. More than the questions of how’s he doing (fine), or how good the show is (pretty good, I guess), Americans were looking for a resolution to the sordid tale of betrayal that unfolded off screen. There’s an understandable yearning generated by any fall-from-grace story, especially when it happens on such a grand stage, with so many super-famous, high-profile players involved in such brazen backstabbing, grandstanding and face-saving. There’s been a ton of ink spilled about Conan as a cyberhero man-of-the-people, driven by the bottom-up Team Coco movement, who voted-with-their tweets to collectively doom Jay Leno to innermost circle of hipster hell.
There’s something intrinsically odd and retrograde about the accidental new media superstar, who returns so quickly to the old medium that shunned him. In a way, this is a nasty predicament, because it actually puts Conan in the odd position of lacking faith in the world that embraced him at his lowest. There’s no easy answer to what he could have done online in a sustainable way, but nobody ever pretended that his eyes weren’t on returning to TV as soon as he packed the Triumph puppet in mothballs. But the trend of TV and radio celebrities setting up shop on the web has become something more than an overblown promise in the last year.
An unlikely success story in this arena is former “Loveline” host and “Man Show” creator Adam Carolla, who left his last terrestrial radio job in February 2009 and hasn’t looked back. As the host of the daily podcast “The Adam Carolla Show,” he reportedly commands an audience of almost three million listeners a month. As a result, he has been celebrated as a true pioneer, and regularly tops the iTunes podcast chart. By most measures, the blue-collar, politically incorrect ranter is a more unlikely web celebrity than the self-effacing Harvard alum, O’Brien. Conversely, Carolla found the web and it embraced him, and so he stayed. But has Conan forsaken the Internet, the way NBC had forsaken him? So far the Twitterverse has been a means to an end, and it remains to be seen if he can keep that fire burning while transitioning back to the small screen.
But Conan’s emergence from the Internet diaspora raises some very old-media problems too. O’Brien is re-entering a very crowded talk show landscape and he may be in for a fight to stay relevant. He’s now going head to head with his old network competition, Letterman and Kimmel, and his new network nemesis, Leno, and he doesn’t really have a shot of conquering the basic cable war, with “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” having solidified their dominance in that arena years ago. Expect self-effacement machine Conan to make a lot of hay of his new underdog status, but will that be enough to generate a new wave of enduring endearment? (Remember, Conan came from the 12:30 a.m. spot, traditionally a home for the more scraggly, cutting-edge style of talk show, where being on in the middle of the night with a small viewership is part of the joke.) Expect “basic cable” to substitute for “in middle of the night” in Conan’s monologues going forward. Interestingly enough, his biggest competition comes from someone not even in his time slot. Jimmy Fallon (who now occupies the chair that Conan launched his hosting career from 17 years ago) might have quietly become the best in late night while the world was fixated on “The Tonight Show” drama. Fallon has established himself as truly simpatico with the younger demographic and the Internet age, with slick production and surreal moments. If Fallon is that guy now, who the heck is Conan?
Like it or not, the Internet may be the real yardstick of how well a television talk show is doing anyway. Many people just know these shows via the clips that emerge in their Facebook feeds the morning after. Certainly Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have frequently reached wide audiences over the web with viral interviews and packages. Fallon too, has shown an impressive aptitude for this with highly clickable web-friendly bits. Conan was once a pioneer in this realm. Triumph’s sketches have undoubtedly resulted in many a lunchtime latte spit-taked on America’s cubicle walls, and his fans expect only more of the same. Ultimately Conan lost “The Tonight Show” because he couldn’t muster viewers, and now he needs his web legions to follow him from their laptops to their EZ chairs. For that to happen, he’d be wise to start following them on Twitter.