Conan O’Brien hits Spokane tonight
Comedian is fresh off signing his new late-night deal with TBS
Laughter is the goal when a comedian steps in front of an audience. Conan O’Brien is in pursuit of that and more: the next stage of his career. The former “Tonight” host, who this week reached an agreement with TBS for a new late-night talk show, comes to Spokane tonight in the third stop of a nationwide tour.
Dubbed “The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour,” the two-month venture, which kicked off Monday in Eugene, Ore., will take O’Brien, his former “Tonight” band and sidekick Andy Richter to about 30 U.S. and Canadian cities.
It’s virtually sold out and extra dates have been added in a handful of larger markets. Fans are paying as much as $2,000 for VIP seats and face time with O’Brien in Chicago.
That makes him look like a winner – and a rock star – as he prepares to return to television this fall.
The TBS cable network announced Monday that O’Brien will host an hourlong show Mondays through Thursdays at 11 p.m., pushing George Lopez’s show back to midnight.
It’s expected to debut in November. O’Brien’s exit deal with NBC prohibited him from appearing on television until September – hence the name of his tour.
A non-disparagement stipulation in the agreement also prevents him from directly mocking NBC, which he did relentlessly in his final days on “Tonight.”
But he got off a few roundabout zingers Monday, showing short films in which he played a bald man billed as a “generic network executive” (not unlike NBC’s Jeff Zucker), introducing a new series called “I’m a Celebrity and I Eat Bark” (think “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!”).
And while O’Brien reportedly also surrendered rights to such comedy bits as Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, he did show a Triumph video, and recast his well-known Masturbating Bear character as the “Self-Pleasuring Panda.”
Reviews for the 110-minute show – which also included appearances by rock band Spoon (which was playing its own gig across town) and other comics including longtime sidekick Andy Richter – were somewhat mixed, but encouraging.
Rolling Stone’s Scott Sepich, who described the newly bearded O’Brien as “looking like a paler, redheaded Barry Gibb,” said: “The content of the show occasionally strayed to places he’s never gone on TV, with a smattering of profanities tossed in to give it an edgier feel.”
The Hollywood Reporter’s Erik Pedersen called it “consistently amusing but only occasionally riotous and sometimes flat.”
Wrote The Oregonian’s Kristi Turnquist: “It was plain that this was the first stop on the tour, and cast and crew were getting a feel for what worked and what didn’t.
“At times, the show seemed to cheerfully roll along like an out-of-control soccer ball. But O’Brien and crew always managed to bring it back from the ‘where-is-this-going?’ episodic brink.”
A former O’Brien colleague dismisses any possibility of flop sweat.
“He’s gonna kill. The people who are going to come out and see him on the road are the very small subset (of the TV audience) who are fanatics,” said writer-producer Alec Berg (“Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), who wrote for O’Brien during his first year as host of NBC’s “Late Night.”
Besides, Berg said, “He is, in person, face to face, phenomenally funny.”
While O’Brien has long performed monologues and sketches on TV, he didn’t spend years honing a comedy club act like Jay Leno, who started on the circuit and has remained on it even during “Tonight.” (He appeared at Washington State University on Saturday as part of Mom’s Weekend festivities.)
O’Brien received a $32 million payout when he left NBC rather than move “Tonight” to midnight to make room for Leno after the latter’s failed prime-time show.
His departure allowed Leno to reclaim “Tonight,” which has regained viewers lost under O’Brien.
One motivation for O’Brien to hit the road is his desire to give employment to the staff and crew he brought from New York to Los Angeles when he took over “Tonight,” insiders say.
The tour should yield a “a nice profit,” says Gary Bongiovanni of the concert industry trade publication Pollstar. “In general, there’s probably nothing more economical to produce than a comedy show.”
The outcome already is clear to Berg and David Mandel, his fellow “Curb Your Enthusiasm” executive producer and “Seinfeld” alum.
“To me, it’s a victory tour,” said Mandel. “I know he lost ‘The Tonight Show,’ but in a weird way, it’s a victory tour.”
Said Berg: “I agree. I think he’s better off. It’s the first time he’s not going to be wearing a shoe that was someone else’s.”
ABC News and MTV.com contributed to this report.
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