Conan O'Brien's late-night talk show should just be late as in departed

February 20, 1994|By Jim Sullivan | Jim Sullivan,Boston Globe

America, it's time to request a mercy killing.

The question America asked last September: Why Conan O'Brien?

Now, five months and 102 shows later, the question is: Why Conan O'Brien?

OK, you probably don't care. You're tired of the Talk Show Wars, and you don't stay up late anyway. Or, you don't stay up that late anymore.

You might have watched the debut of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" Sept. 13. It was awkward and amateurish. But, hey, Mr. O'Brien had been a writer-producer of "The Simpsons," the hippest series on network television, so you harbored some expectations. You thought things might improve -- the monologues, skits and interviews.

Your expectations were thwarted. You moved on. Probably to bed. You ceased to care.

Mr. O'Brien looked as if he had a strategy. He attempted to defuse the David Letterman comparison right away by playing up his inexperience, by planting a cranky codger-actor in the crowd who jeered, "You're not as good as Letterman!"

Recently, the codger -- passed off as, sigh, a twin brother of the original codger -- declared Mr. O'Brien all right in his own right. Then, there's Robert Vaughn -- yes, the old "Man From U.N.C.L.E" -- out in the crowd delivering a variety of disses along the lines of "I see a cringing coward. . . . You're no big shot. You're a scared little squirrel."

Well, yeah, probably. Is this irony?

Mr. O'Brien occasionally gets a guest who's funny or has something to say -- Pete Hamill, Joe Queenan -- but the show mostly seems sorry. Sorry to be forced to write gags, sorry

to bother you. Mr. O'Brien's primary shtick is Loser Shtick. In that, he's like Joe Franklin with more self-knowledge.

The only thing Mr. O'Brien shares with Mr. Letterman is a quasi-embrace of the corny, goofball joke and the we-know-it's-not-really-funny-too subtext. But Mr. O'Brien's nervous patter and whiny voice -- he has a high-pitched whinny that tops Jay Leno on the Annoyance Meter -- combine for a sad refrain, a show that lacks the implicit irony or the sly double-edge of Mr. Letterman's humor.

Mr. O'Brien aspires to college humor; he falls short of high school. "Beavis and Butt-head" (occasionally) aside, knowingly stupid does not equal funny. You watch a dog lick peanut butter off a picture of Tom Snyder. You might be in on the joke, but if there's no joke to be in on . . . it makes you, the viewer, feel uncomfortable.

"I don't have much to say to the guests," Mr. O'Brien said on a recent Monday night, stalling, in a joke that seemed more hapless self-admission. Probably true. His first star: Scott Baio -- Chachi on "Happy Days."

Keep in mind: This is the brainchild of executive producer Lorne Michaels, the "Saturday Night Live" wiz. Does Mr. Michaels not recognize a bomb-in-progress? (Then again, given the paucity of sharp satire on the current "SNL" . . . ) Can't Mr. Michaels glimpse the flaws? Given the lackluster writing, Mr. O'Brien may even be the least of the show's problems.

When guests come on, there is never the feeling of show-time. The guests on Leno, Arsenio or Letterman seem to be ready and willing to perform. On Conan, they look as if they've wandered by somebody's rec room for an informal chat. They're dim bulbs.

How does it rate across the country? A 1.8 rating and a 9 share from the season's start Sept. 20 through Jan. 16. This compares to a 5.6 rating and 18 share for Mr. Letterman and a 4.3 rating and a 13 share for Mr. Leno, according to Nielsen Media Research. As to Mr. O'Brien's movement? "If there were a question of it going up or down, it's pretty much stayed the same," says a Nielsen spokeswoman.

Already one station, WGRZ in Buffalo, has dropped the show in favor of infomercials.

L Is this the beginning of the slippery slope to cancellation?

Let's hope.

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