Monday night, Conan O'Brien's new late-night show Conan made its debut on TBS. Plenty has been written about what O'Brien's move to basic cable means for the world of late-night comedy, but now critics can start talking about the show itself. How did O'Brien do on his first night back?
Underwhelming, declares Hank Stuever of The Washington Post. "'Conan's' debut seemed like it had been written hastily on Post-it notes, rather than the showing off the under-appreciated genius that its host has been fostering during his temporary television exile," Stuever writes. "O'Brien successfully transplanted his late-night talk show to basic cable... successfully, that is, if the goal was merely to relocate it brick for brick, format for format, piece by predictable piece."
No Real Surprises "In short, meh," writes Matthew Gilbert of The Boston Globe. "Tonight's premiere was notable primarily for giving us Conan as he was and, probably, always will be--tense, ironic, kind of a nice guy, sometimes clever, sometimes funny, sometimes not. His months of intense bonding with his fan base in theaters and online--pushing the role of talk-show host into some new areas of intimacy with audiences--have not changed his essential comic DNA ... Perhaps Conan will head in some new directions once he regains his sea legs?"
Enough Wound-Licking Conan's opening segment showed the host getting ousted from NBC, then shuffling through a series of demeaning jobs. Robert Bianco of USA Today wasn't amused: "The jokes were understandable, and some of them were funny. But it's time now for O'Brien to dump the 'making the best of it' self-pity pose, even when used for comic effect. He's made millions. He'll make millions. Stop crying on the national shoulder. Unlike many Americans, you've got a job. Get on with it."
Conan Never Claimed to Be an Innovator, points out David Sims at The A.V. Club. "I'm sure O'Brien is going to get some flak for basically sticking to his old format (monologue; desk; couch; two guests; a musical act; Andy Richter), instead of really playing around with the late night format now that he's fully in control of his show," Sims writes. "But I think looking to Conan O'Brien to come up with something drastically new is misguided. Although he'd always been that much edgier and looser than his longtime lead-in Jay Leno, we're still talking about a guy who grew up on Johnny Carson and David Letterman and who's been hosting late-night TV for 17 years... It feels like what Conan wants to do is host a really great late night show in the classic format, and that's what he gets to do here."
It's the Same Old, But He's Good At It, agrees James Poniewozik at Time, calling Monday's premiere "a looser, quirkier take on a late-night talk show, but still a late-night talk show: opening bit, monologue, desk bit, interview, interview, music, good night! Frankly, that may not be a bad thing ... What was exciting about Conan's Tonight Show, even or especially during those times when he was struggling to get the balance of daring humor with a broad platform, was the notion that this comic artist was getting the chance to do something new, with a new set of tools. Conan didn't need to reinvent the wheel (nor does he now): he was just showing us he had this new, awesome wheel, and he couldn't wait to show us how fast it was."