I think most people who know me know I’m a massive fan of Conan O’Brien. I’ve looked up to him since I was 14 years old and in the 9th grade. I used to watch reruns of ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’ on Comedy Central after school everyday. The best day of my life, which also happens to be the only day I cut school, was May 4, 2007 when I went to see Conan in San Francisco as part of the week of shows Late Night did in San Francisco. I was also fortunate to be short enough for him to stand in front of and reach behind to sign autographs.
During The Tonight Show fiasco I was all about Team Coco; I changed my profile picture to that famous image of Conan and read any article debating the issue, often rolling my eyes at any point of view that wasn’t Team Coco.
When Conan announced that he would be moving to TBS and starting over on the cable channel, I, along with many other fans, rejoiced because we knew this would be the return of our late night king. By airing on a cable network, Conan would have more freedom with his show than he did in the conservative 11:30pm/Tonight Show slot. I literally screamed when I found out I had tickets to see the 4th ever show taping and although I wished for better guests (my third time seeing Michael Cera…), it was still a ton of fun.
It’s now been about 10 months since the show began and there have been a few articles, notably from The A.V Club (“Conan not doing so well at TBS“) and the Wall Street Journal (“Conan Falls Flat in Season 1“), about the sad state Conan is in now. Reading both articles made me feel incredibly sad and guilty. I’ll admit that I haven’t been tuning into Conan lately and when I do watch, it’s usually the short clips from the website, thus not registering any ratings.
I’m going to start out by saying I’m not a media expert, nor completely knowledgable about this field. I’m merely a hardcore fan who hates to see one of her favorite comedians struggle like this. These are just a few of my own ideas/suggestions that Conan can do to bring up those rating numbers.
1. Find Conan‘s niche
Now that Conan is on TBS, it has to compete with a bunch of other late night talk shows: The Tonight Show w/Jay Leno, The Late Late Show w/Craig Ferguson, Late Night w/Jimmy Fallon, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Chelsea Late. Some people might argue that too much competition is a bad thing. However, if there’s one thing I learned in all of my economics class (sad…and I’m an economics major), competition is always a good thing. It forces all parties to innovate and differentiate themselves from one another. I don’t even watch some of the listed shows but I know that Jay Leno’s well known for his “safe” humor and generally easy-going interview style, while Letterman’s famous for his snark and Top 10 lists. Fallon’s managed to make Late Night his own by having fun games for guests and lots of up-and-coming bands. Kimmel usually has some great shorts, e.g “I’m Fucking Ben Affleck” and “Handsome Men’s Club”. Chelsea Handler has that circle of comedians trash talking celebs and Craig Ferguson is known for his Scottish wit and charm. Meanwhile, Colbert and Stewart continue dominating on Comedy Central with their news satire shows. Each of these late night shows is well-known for something and have figured out how to hone in on their specialities and perfect it for their audiences.
Like I mentioned before, many thought that the move to cable would be a good thing because Conan could go back to his zany humor. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case right now and I don’t know if it’s because Conan’s adamant about reaching a wider audience of if he’s just playing safe right now and doesn’t really want to test the waters just yet. As a Conan fan, this is utterly depressing. What I absolutely loved about Late Night was the zany, oddball humor. Although the guest interviews were extremely amusing sometimes, the best thing about Late Night were the remotes and the shorts. To this day, I can still watch old remotes and laugh till I’m almost crying. Sure, some of the shorts started to get repetitive, but what I wouldn’t give to see a Celebrity Surveys with Justin Bieber or Kim Kardashian.
The Wall Street Journal notes that some television critics are arguing that Conan’s low ratings are because of his “niche appeal.” I completely disagree with this and think that the humor on Conan is nowhere near the niche-ness of Late Night. There have been very few remotes on the new show and the ones they do have, often feel like 10 minute long product placements (Time Warner Cable, Ford, etc). Rather, I think Conan needs to get back to what he’s good at – the zany, off the wall humor. Go back to doing remotes that aren’t centered around a product and establish some short comedy staples. While I love Will Forte, his Ted Turner character is weak and at times, unfunny. Conan needs to have something for his viewers to look forward.
2. Get better musical guests
I think some people write off having musical guests as something that talk shows have to do, but I think it really helps bring in viewers. When I saw that Conan was doing a Summer Concert Series, I was intrigued but then I saw the line-up. PITBULL. KE$HA. KT TUNSTALL. What?! I’m a fan of trashy music at times, but I looked at this and cringed. Jimmy Fallon is doing an amazing job of showcasing a lot of new bands and thus, getting their fans to tune in and generating buzz. Meanwhile Conan’s getting B-list popstars whose fans are too young to stay up to watch the show. Late Night w/Conan O’Brien was notable for its ability to bring in a ton of talented and fresh bands, while the Top 40 acts were always on Leno. The Strokes, The White Stripes, Metric, Foo Fighters, The Shins, and plenty more made appearances on Late Night and even more had their first television appearance on the show.
Conan does have some notable musical acts every once in awhile, but it doesn’t seem to have the power Late Night had. Somewhere along the way, Jimmy Fallon became the show to tune in to find the next big band.
3. It might be time to get rid of Andy
I love Andy Richter as much as any other Conan fan, but I’m starting realize that there really isn’t a purpose for him on the show. Right now, Andy serves as the announcer and Conan’s right hand man; he’s there to chime in every once in awhile during an interview and for Conan to play jokes off of. However, there’s just too much going on. Even though Andy never says that much during interviews, there are too many people talking. Some people have criticized Conan’s interviewing skills for always re-directing the flow of conversation back to himself, and I can definitely see that, and having Andy there doesn’t help. All of a sudden, it’s a Conan and Andy conversation and not a Conan and the guest conversation. Sometimes the guest is boring as hell and I love when they make it more exciting with a joke or a comment, but I think Conan as an interviewer works best alone (this also applies to the monologue). I’m not saying that Andy should leave the show entirely; he can definitely continue as the announcer and pop up in skits. Some of my favorite old skits involved Andy:
I do think it might be best to “trim the fat” (no pun intended!)
4. What to do about social media?
Conan is probably the only late night show right now that has fully embraced social media, and does it well. The entire Team Coco movement wouldn’t have exploded if it wasn’t for the Team Coco Facebook page set up by Mike Mitchell (who later hinted at bad relations between him and Conan on his Twitter…he still hasn’t explained). Fans took to Twitter to show their support by using the hashtags: #teamcoco and #imwithcoco. The show has done an amazing job of expanding their online presence by offering clips of interviews and comedy sketches on their Team Coco website. However, as the WSJ article points out, this has also hurt the show. Fans do not tune in during original airings and watch clips online (time-shifted watching), resulting in lower ratings. It’s difficult to say if this has truly hurt the show because you could argue that having web accessible clips helps promote the show and is less intimidating than offering the entire episode. I think the Team Coco website is a great website and I love that they’ve put entire episodes online. However, I would suggest that they switch from their own web player to YouTube. Right now, their official YouTube channel has short clips from interviews and some comedy bits, but the majority of the show remains only on their website. By having these clips on YouTube, fans would probably be more likely to watch because they wouldn’t have to deal with buggy video players or worse, commercials/sponsored messages.
I’ve also noticed a heavy reliance on the Internet as a source of comedy. There have been comedy bits about Twitter or posts about the “funniest” Internet videos. Rather than trying to exploit the medium for comedy, the show should focus on creating Internet-worthy material. Much like The Lonely Island’s work with Digital Shorts, Conan’s writers should come up with skits that are hilarious and easy to digest. Create something original, viral-worthy, and of course, very funny.
Additionally, I seem to recall that during Conan’s brief Tonight Show stint, they used to have viewers all tweet using a specific hashtag. I don’t know if they’ve been banned from doing it on the new show, but it was actually a lot of fun and got viewers engaged. That might be something to bring back!
5. The writing staff
The monologues on Conan have always been my least favorite part of his shows. They’re never quite that funny and usually get only few giggles out of me. I understand it must be difficult having to write up new jokes everyday of the week and still remain topical, but is there any way they can bring in new talent? I believe Mike Sweeney and the Brians (McCann and Stack) are still working for Conan and I think that’s absolutely great, but I’d love if they changed up the writing staff a bit. Lately the jokes have seemed a bit stale, safe, and tired. The show needs to recruit new writers who are edgier and wittier, perhaps younger writers who haven’t had much experience, but show potential. I’m not sure where they’d recruit them, maybe Upright Citizens Brigade, but the show is located in LA, which is just a festering pool of desperate talent.
Bonus: Did you know Demetri Martin used to be a writer for Late Night?
6. Change the format (?)
I’ve seen this suggested by some people online. What if Conan got rid of the talk show format and just made it a sketch show? That would definitely make his show stand out among the other late night talk shows, but a decision like this could hurt the show more. It’d be smart for the show to look into viewer interest of a show that only focuses on comedy bits and gets rid of the interviews. Or maybe they could just have one guest/interview and the rest comedy bits? Again, it’s an interesting suggestion and I would fully support it if the show went through with it, but Conan should conduct some research beforehand. It’s definitely a radical choice that could really help the show.
In the meantime, I feel like the show’s been having bad timing lately. When Rebecca Black’s “Friday” exploded on YouTube and became the butt of EVERYONE’S joke, the show was on a break/hiatus. During the week of the release of Harry Potter, the show was on a break/hiatus and so it lost the chance to interview the stars. A huge blockbuster movie, and you’re not going to have the actors on the show? Huge mistake. Luckily, Tom Felton showed up later to promote Rise of the Planet of the Apes and I will say that it was one of the only interviews I’ve watched recently.
Also, the show could benefit from a Friday airing. Currently, the show airs M/T/W/R and has a break on Friday. However, most people can’t stay up late during the week because of school or work, so having a Friday show would give viewers the chance to tune in to a new episode at least once a week.
I’ve offered my own thoughts and suggestions as to how Conan might recapture some those viewers lost over the past few months. Again, I’m not an expert on any of these issues, but I am a fan who wants desperately wants Conan to flourish in its new home on TBS. Writing this also helped me figure out why I haven’t been tuning in lately, but I will try to do so more often from now on. After all, I’m a Conan girl for life!