Conan O'Brien made a triumphant return to television after a nine-month absence Monday night and apparently it wasn't a moment too soon for his fans, who gave the red-headed comic a rousing ovation as he bounded on to the set of his new late night digs in California.
"That was longer than my last job," he joked as the crowd settled in for a fast-paced first night of the show simply known as "Conan." The opening featured an extended monologue that touched on the comic's transition to a new late-night landscape on the occasion of what he called his "second annual first show."
"People ask me why I named the show Conan. I did it so I’d be harder to replace," he said. "I’m glad to be on cable. The truth is, I’ve dreamed of being a talk show host on basic cable ever since I was 46. And things are going well already. I’m happy to report that we’re already No. 1 in TBS’s key demographic — people who can’t afford HBO."
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He even managed to throw a stinging jab at his old employer.
"I’m going to be honest: It’s not easy doing a late-night show on a channel without a lot of money and that viewers have trouble finding. So that’s why I left NBC," he joked.
"But the weird thing is this," he continued. "I put myself and my staff through a lot because I refused to go on at midnight," referencing the schism that lead to his departure from the peacock. "So I get this job at eleven. Then, yesterday, Daylight Savings Time ended — so right now it’s basically midnight. In fact, it’s 12:05."
Another source of controversy with NBC surrounded a potential intellectual property lawsuit over the use of certain characters and recurring bits that O'Brien developed on "Late Night" and the "Tonight Show." In recent days, the comic expressed his desire to employ those gags on his new show.
"If there's something we did for a long time that we've established as ours, we'll figure out a way to do it," he said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. "I won't be denied my Masturbating Bear!"
And he was not denied, as the bear appeared in a skit as a lotto ball selector for a mock NBC news station.
O'Brien was joined onstage by faithful side kick Andy Richter, who got in a shot at the host's expense during a discussion about Conan's "lowest low" over the last nine months: finding out that a Halloween costume made to look like his face had been named "Ex Talk Show Host."
"It looks like an Asian Val Kilmer," O'Brien said, staring at his rubbery likeness.
"Inside it smells like tears," Richter quipped as both men wore the mask during a brief exchange.
"Maybe I'll bang out a few more," Gervais said. "Conan, I'm really sorry about TBS, but know you're going to fit in great at the Food Network."
In typical Conan fashion, the first guest was an offbeat selection, picked by fans in a "rigged first guest contest." The winner? Arlene Wagner, the owner and curator of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in Washington. She never said a word as she walked through and across the set, stopping only briefly to present the host with an Irish-inspired Nutcracker figure.
The first guest who actually spoke to O'Brien, "Knocked Up" star Seth Rogen, chatted about his recent engagement, his disappointment over California's failed proposition to legalize marijuana, and his background in karate that came into play while filming the forthcoming action-comedy, "The Green Hornet."
"What kind of moves did you learn at the Vancouver Jewish Community Center?" Conan asked.
"A lot of guilt-driven moves," Rogen replied. "The problem is, they only work on other Jewish people."
"They also work on Catholics," O'Brien deadpanned. "There's a wide berth there."
"Glee's" Lea Michele followed and talked about her recent, controversial cover shoot for GQ.
Conan then rocked out with White Stripes front man Jack White. During a break from his "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" tour last summer, O'Brien spent a day in Nashville with White and the duo cut a few songs together. They performed a blistering duet of a rockabilly tune with the backing of the in-house Basic Cable Band to close out the evening.