Conan O'Brien on '60 Minutes': a TBS tune-up

Conan O'Brien, appeared on television Sunday night for the first time since his abrupt departure from NBC's 'Tonight Show.' Cultural buzz, not ratings, will fuel his success, observers say.

Former 'Tonight Show' host Conan O'Brien (r.) talks with '60 Minutes' correspondent Steve Kroft in this image taken from video and released by CBS.

Reviews of Conan O’Brien’s Sunday night outing on CBS’s venerable “60 Minutes” news magazine show run the gamut from dubbing it a self-indulgent fiasco, to a great job – warm, human, and honest.

The appearance won the night with more than 13 million viewers tuning in to hear what Mr. O’Brien had to say about his abrupt departure from NBC earlier this year. This robust “gawker” turnout is in contrast to the low ratings he garnered during nearly all of his short-lived tenure as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” Expect even tinier audiences for his new program set to debut on little-known cable channel TBS in November.

Yet O’Brien continues to embody the most cutting edge, boundary-breaking comedy, say media watchers and fellow comedians alike.

“There is a growing gap between what is culturally relevant and what will draw ratings,” says Syracuse University media expert Robert Thompson. The red-haired comedian has been a standard-bearer of that split, he points out, noting that it took years for Conan to find his “voice” when he first arrived at NBC in 1992, yet his cultural impact has been enormous.

Similarly, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with John Stewart” and “Colbert Report” with Stephen Colbert have tiny ratings, yet their “buzz factor,” fueled by video clips shared on the Web, is off the charts. “Conan’s move to TBS completely seals the deal that the leading edge of late-night comedy is no longer in an age of grossing big audiences,“ Thompson says.

O'Brien is embracing the same Web tools, launching a wildly popular Twitter account in February.

O’Brien’s impact on television comedy has been huge, says K.P. Anderson, a stand-up comedian and executive producer of E! Entertainment Television's "The Soup." “Conan changed the boundaries of the game,” he says. His absurdist attitude has influenced everyone, including the various late-night hosts on the broadcast networks.

Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Fallon and all those guys, they take a page from Conan who came in and said, ‘what the [heck], what’s the worst they can do, fire me?’ ” O’Brien’s early late night ratings were low, he notes, and took years to build. Comedians such as Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert “have a different template, but they all built on the kind of brashness that Conan brought in.”

This split between what some perceive as “hip” or “cool” extends beyond the late-night comedy stage, says Barry Katz, president of talent management at New Wave Entertainment. “Take a look at the top-rated sitcoms on TV,” he says, a list that includes such current and recent highly conventional sitcoms such as “Two and a Half men,” “Yes, Dear,” and “King of Queens.” Their healthy ratings, ranging anywhere from 10 to 14 million viewers, completely overshadow shows such as “The Office,” “30 Rock,” and “Arrested Development.”

The latter three were the darlings of critics, he notes, though they routinely languish in the ratings.

“Critics rally around these niche shows and make them hot,” he says, often for good reason: The shows push the creative boundaries and usher in new ideas and styles. But, Mr. Katz adds, “America decides what it likes and frequently, that doesn’t click with what the insider media writing about these shows says is hip or cool,” noting that the entertainment industry is built on ratings.

As O’Brien noted in his “60 Minutes” interview, he is willing to risk his career to gain a chance to be creative – a stance his current 40-city stage tour amply demonstrates. "Conan is the former head of the [Harvard] Lampoon,” Mark Stevens, CEO of global marketing firm MSCO, writes in an email. “He wants to be Important more than he wants to be rich. He is the standard bearer for that vaunted position now. And he will play to it to the hilt," Mr. Stevens says, adding, "and then he'll sell out and make a superhero summer blockbuster."

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