Conan O'Brien returns -- to a changed late-night landscape

To the delight of Team Coco, Conan O'Brien returns to late-night TV after his ouster by Jay Leno. But the competition for young viewers has shifted with the rise of Comedy Central.

By , Staff writer

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    TV host Conan O'Brien will debut his new late night show, 'Conan,' on Nov. 8, at 11:00 p.m. EST on TBS.
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Conan O’Brien, the red-haired refugee from NBC’s “Tonight Show,” returns to TV Monday night with “Conan,” his first on-air gig since Jay Leno returned to his old seat and ousted him in February. The hour-long show debuts on the cable outpost TBS at 11 p.m.

So what can we expect from the returning icon, whose diehard fans have had little to snack on since he went off the air, grew a beard and took his comedy show into small, college-town theaters over the past half year or so?

What we know: The first-week lineup is chock full of old friends and big stars such as Seth Rogan and Tom Hanks. And of course, there are musical acts – Jack White, Soundgarden and Fistful of Mercy – and comedian John Dore. And this past week he posted “Show Zero” – a little snack of an online preview that featured a dancing taco – to prime his loyal fans, Team Coco.

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What we don’t know: Will Mr. O’Brien shave his beard on-air?

But besides such pressing matters, there is the question of the changed late-night television environment that the former Simpson’s writer and Harvard graduate now enters.

“I don’t know why anyone would even talk about Jay Leno or David Letterman as far as Conan’s competition anymore,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. Younger TV viewers – the under-30 crowd most coveted by advertisers, he points out – “don’t even know who Jay Leno is.”

“Conan” faces off against Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, a 60-minute basic cable block that Mr. Thompson dubs, “perhaps the most talked about comedy on television right now.” (In October Mr. Stewart beat both Mr. Leno and Mr. Letterman in the key 18-to-49 demographic.)

Thompson suggests that the timing of the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Washington rally this past weekend may have had as much to do with staging a promotional offensive against the upcoming “Conan” debut as the Nov. 2 election.

But if the late-night axis is no longer Conan-Leno-Letterman, but Conan versus Comedy Central, nobody knows how that will affect Conan’s style.

Carla Collins, the comedienne who has been dubbed “Canada’s answer to Tina Fey,” says it would be a mistake to think that this would be the driving force behind his work. “For him, its never been about the money,” she says, adding that O’Brien is driven by his passion to push the edges of comedy and “be a unique voice.”

While his style is far more random, quirky, and sarcastic than the overtly topical and politics-driven content of Stewart and Colbert, Ms. Collins suggests that O’Brien engages in equally forceful commentary. “I just see him as more subversive than doing things like running an actual news clip and then riffing on it,” she says.

O’Brien has a lot going for him, says Barry Katz, president of talent management at New Wave Entertainment in Burbank, from the curiosity factor to the lengthy and emotional relationship he has had with his fan base.

“People have rooted for him for a long time,” he says, from O’Brien’s days as an underdog when he first stepped into the late-late night job as an untested former writer to his rise and fall from the “Tonight Show” berth.

But, the big question he will face is how far does he go to adapt to a new job, says Mr. Katz. “His main concern is, ‘Am I going to do the exact same thing I did on NBC and if I do that am I going to expect a different result?’ or ‘Will I try to do some things differently and expect a different result?’ ”

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