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Finally! After all this time! It's Conan O'Zzzzzzz...

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The single-word title offers an absolutely perfect description: Conan is exactly that, for better and worse.

Conan O'Brien returned to late-night TV on Monday, delivering precisely what his fans have come to expect and not a single notion, gimmick, whim or antic more.

Conan, which airs on U.S. cable's TBS superstation (and, in Canada, on CTV and Comedy), opened its basic-cable run as a reasonably polished after-hours chatfest that shows no inclination toward innovation or even the smallest deviation from the genre's time-worn format.

From its opening credits and monologue jokes to the usual product-plugging guest banter and show-closing musical number, Monday's effort stayed with the blueprint, completely.

The show opened with a pre-taped segment that, while amusing, was nowhere near as frantically funny as the cross-country sprint gag that introduced his first instalment of The Tonight Show last year. The bit began with Conan in his office, answering a call that sent him into a tizzy: "You want me to move The Tonight Show to 12:05 (a.m. ET)? Forget it! I'm not doing it! Go to hell!!!"

And then, smugly, turning to the camera: "What can THEY do to ME?"

Well, what they could do, in O'Brien's still-bruised imagination, is gun him down at the studio gate; he survived the dream-sequence hit, but his doctor informed him that he'll "never work in network television again."

That left Fantasy Conan at home, in his undershirt, with his overwhelmed pretend wife screaming, "Conan! You have GOT to get a job! We have 14 kids -- do something for this family, Conan!"

But in this nightmare, he knew not how. A job interview with Mad Men's Don Draper (Jon Hamm) went badly -- "You have absolutely no advertising experience... plus, it's 1965, and you're two years old" -- and stints as a fast-food server and birthday-party clown were even worse.

Dejected, Dream Conan was just about to fling himself off a bridge when a voice pleaded, "Don't do it, Conan!" The voice belonged to an ethereal (but still skeletal) Larry King, outfitted with guardian-angel's wings.

"But you're not dead," Conan pointed out. "Never mind that," he replied. "I have two words for you: basic cable."

The bit pretty much petered out from there, leading into sidekick/announcer Andy Richter's booming introduction and O'Brien's gangly march onstage to a wild, applause-light-abetted ovation.

"Everybody, sit down, please," O'Brien cautioned. "We don't know how much time I'm going to get here. That (applause) lasted longer than my last job."

A few standard-issue monologue jokes later (almost all focused on Conan's THAT-show-to-this-show transition), O'Brien settled in behind his very-traditional desk and got down to the business of hosting just another late-night talk show.

The guest list was unremarkable -- Seth Rogen, Glee co-star Lea Michele and alt-rocker Jack White (though it must be said that O'Brien and White blew the roof off with their shared-stage musical number) -- and the conversation was the usual mix of prepared banter and product plugs.

It's fair to say that Conan served up exactly what his fans were expecting to see; it's also likely that his new basic-cable bosses at TBS were probably hoping for something more. This show won't lure many converts over from the Jay/Dave realm, and its opening night suggests it won't be anywhere near as edgy or inventive as the even-later Jimmy/Craig tandem.

And then there's the sticky problem that Conan, in the U.S., airs directly opposite Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which may well have established itself as late-night's only true must-see these days.

If you live in this Prairie outpost, Canadian-network scheduling, time-zone shifting and regional-feed flukery relegate Conan to the very wee hours, which means for most folks hereabouts, it's either a PVR setting or just something you hear about from co-workers who stay up waaaaay later than you do.

Conan being Conan won't disappoint his fans. But after this week's hype and tire-kicking curiosity subside, it'll hardly be a show that most other folks even know is on.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

TV REVIEW

Conan

Starring Conan O'Brien and Andy Richter.

Weeknights at 1:05 a.m., CTV/2 a.m., Comedy

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2010 D3

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