Published May 24, 2010Surfing a wave of adulation since all hell broke loose in late night TV a few months ago, postmodern folk hero Conan O'Brien brought a loose semblance of his old variety show to a grateful Toronto audience.
After taking over David Letterman's Late Night show on NBC, O'Brien improbably spearheaded the most adventurous and influential hour of comedy on TV. Backed by skilled, edgy writers, he thrived on awkwardness, whether his own, or that of strange characters like the Masturbating Bear or, most infamously, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (both of which made appearances in Toronto). O'Brien's eventual graduation to The Tonight Show was well deserved, but as we all know, the whole thing didn't take under NBC's nearsighted watch; Jay Leno unceremoniously reclaimed his soiled throne, forcing O'Brien into a prolonged, contractually enforced exile from late night, transforming the comedian into a scapegoat and symbol for corporate obliviousness and bungling.
Displaying contrary grit, savvy instincts and astounding grace ahead of his winter debut on cable network TBS, O'Brien is doing what no other late night host ever has: he's taking his show on the road with The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour. As spectacle, the tour is a feat. O'Brien's amazing band and back-up dancers/singers are charmingly astounding and energetic (for the finale, O'Brien himself tore through guitar solos after running up to the balcony to get closer to fans), and the show weaves between live and canned comedy bits and songs.
What's odd is how hit or miss much of the comedy in this show really is. With a mix of self-aware self-pity, O'Brien has re-written "On the Road Again," the Elvis Presley favourite "Polk Salad Annie," and "I Will Survive" to mirror his own life's predicaments. There was also an original, "The Girl Who Looked Like Conrad Bain," which O'Brien says he'll complete with contributions from fans. The songs are pleasant enough but don't warrant more than chuckles. Andy Richter remains an odd foil for O'Brien, easily busting him up even as the two interrupt each other's quips, laughing like brothers at their incomprehensibility.
Former writer Deon Cole did a funny stand-up bit, and opener Reggie Watts killed, sending Canada up through his mix of looped beat-boxing, surreal jokes and songs. In fact, aside from O'Brien revisiting a popular TV segment where he pulls a lever to launch bizarre, out-of-context clips from Chuck Norris's Walker, Texas Ranger, Cole and Watts received the biggest laughs of the night.
Though O'Brien must joke about it, his wounds from the public debacle around his show are very real and still open. There was nothing overly heavy about his live show (except for a surprise rendition of "The Weight" that O'Brien and his band delivered, as a Canadian tribute), but there was some noticeable rust on his normally sharp comic instincts.