Conan O'Brien Returns to Late Night: 5 Lessons From the New Show

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Conan O'Brien's new show, Conan, debuted last night, bringing the host back to television for the first time since he left NBC in January. The episode had all the trappings of a typical late-night show: a pre-taped intro segment, a joke-filled opening monologue, followed by appearances from guests with movies and TV shows to plug. Though premiere didn't offer any big surprises, it did offer some insights about what to expect in the season ahead:

He's targeting a very specific audience. In his opening monologue, Conan joked that Conan was destined to be "Number one in TBS's key demographic: people who can't afford HBO." But based on the show itself, he's trying to hold the interest of the Internet-addicted young people who rallied for him in the wake of his very public breakup with NBC. Conan's courtship of millennials was evident in his selection of guests: Judd Apatow darling Seth Rogen, Glee star Lea Michele, and White Stripes guitarist Jack White. O'Brien's comments during the show made the focus even clearer: he identified himself as "the guy from Twitter." And later, after he briefly made fun of Internet geeks, O'Brien turned to announcer Andy Richter and said, "Talk about biting the hand that feeds you."

The show has a cursing quota. As soon as Rogen opened his mouth, TBS's censors started beeping. "I broke the 'shit' rule," the Knocked Up star boasted. But Richter warned him not to get too carried away: "We only get three a night," he said.

Conan is wearing more makeup than a beauty pageant contestant. While talking to Michele, O'Brien made the requisite reference to the controversial GQ photo spread she did with her fellow Glee cast-members. After declaring he was not offended by the racy photos, he suggested a way to make them less sexy: by Photoshopping in a picture of him from high school. Michele was so horrified by the skinny, pasty teenaged O'Brien that she squealed, "Why are you so pale?" O'Brien explained why he looks more rosy-cheeked on TV, "I have 40 pounds of makeup on right now. I really am that scary-looking."

O'Brien has a plan to be sure he doesn't get fired again. His explanation for why he gave his show the laughingly obvious name Conan: "I did it so I'd be harder to replace."

But if TBS doesn't work out, has plenty of fallbacks. Midway through the show, O'Brien presented his audience with a pre-taped good luck message from Office creator Ricky Gervais. After wishing his friend the best with new cable show, Gervais went onto imagine where O'Brien might be in a month or two: the Food Network. And then he guessed what would come after that: a weatherman gig at a local station in Dayton, Ohio. What's last on the media totem pole for Conan? Satellite radio.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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