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Jeff Simon: Everyone always liked Conan O'Brien; no one likes him enough

Jeff Simon

I like Conan O'Brien. I always have. I know I'm not alone, too.

It's just that I never watched his show. Few people I know did -- not regularly. His hourlong late-night TBS stint was officially over Thursday. His show will return in January as a half-hour show sans band.

I used to dip into his TBS show two or three times a year or to see this interview or that. Or maybe an occasional monologue.

It's just that there was never any reason to make his show "appointment television" (which, in the 21st century, is what most television has to be).

Conan didn't have a lightning storm continually breaking around his head the way David Letterman did. Nor did he have that weirdly charismatic Letterman self-disgust or that brilliant Letterman pipeline to the great late night originals, like talk show Dada master, Steve Allen.

In his biggest and most dramatic rivalry -- with Jay Leno -- Conan was infinitely more likable than Leno, who was always late night's greatest sellout. But he couldn't match the one thing Leno could always do: rapid-fire standup. (Those gags were, by common assent, the only things Leno really cared about, which is why his monologue gags were always decent and why his "Jay Leno's Garage" TV shows are still watchable.)

In the current late night array, Jimmy Fallon and James Corden have music sewn up between them. Colbert has his compelling late-night Trump-bashing. And Jimmy Kimmel -- who knows exactly how mediocre he is -- is the living inheritor of the Jack Paar-Johnny Carson-David Letterman estate.

Kimmel is always good enough, and at least a couple times a week he actually seems interested in the celebrity he's interviewing, the one selling that week's movie or record or TV premiere or book. When he was confronted with one of the most serious health crises a family can face -- a seriously ill newborn -- he turned himself into a continuing conduit for a question that should properly haunt us all: Why should a sick baby's medical care in this country ever be related to how wealthy and/or famous his parents are?

In his sneaky shrewdly unambitious way, Kimmel owns the old talk show format these days. It needs remaking, but the way it is, he makes it work. He's put on a much smarter blue-collar version of it than Leno ever did. Colbert owns the monologue (true news commentary in its partisan nightly way).

O'Brien owns nothing. He is a tall, modest fellow who had a lot to be modest about. When he was introduced to his late-night ascendance 25 years ago, we were told he was the wittiest guy in the writer's room of "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons" and, therefore, a sure thing on late night TV.

That's why he remained on the air. He seemed a great guy to sit next to and have lunch with if you, too, were on the writing staffs of "The Simpsons" or "Saturday Night Live," but were liable to forget completely when you went home to your family.

What we'll never see again are Carson's make-or-break power brokerage in all forms of American celebrity (but especially standup comedy), and Letterman's alienated ability to shock, and Dick Cavett's genuine Yale-bred intellectualism.

The last is where I once thought Harvard-educated Conan might give TV something it desperately needed -- a regular diet of unembarrassed and legitimate literacy, the way Cavett did in his prime. (Where else on American television would you find someone asking Jorge Luis Borges if his blindness meant he always lived in darkness, only to get the answer, "I live in the center of a luminous mist?")

But it was O'Brien's Harvard professionalism to get into the post-Lampoon silly business, where his jokes and bits were functional time-filling and totally unremarkable. Two of Conan's few memorable moments were:

  1. When he said, during his NBC brouhaha with Leno, that in America a child can grow up to be anything he wanted as long as Leno doesn't want to be it, too.
  2. When Robert Smigel's Triumph the Insult Comic Dog gave the show its one truly immortal moment of viral sensation.

O'Brien's new TBS show will include "travel shows around the world, silly remote pieces, interviewing brilliant distinct people. " Just "the stuff we love the most," he says.

It could be splendid or quite deadly.

When Letterman described his game plan for his new show, "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction" on Netflix (complete with Robertson-family beard), it sounded similar. Then when it came time for Letterman to do a big one-on-one interview with his old friend Howard Stern -- who could, if he wanted, be so revealing about his relationship with Donald Trump -- nothing happened. The result was pleasant, but surprisingly bland. The evening ended with Letterman on horseback having given up Stern completely. He was being properly ecological, but it is not news to anyone, at this moment, that Letterman's politics are nothing, if not politically idealistic.

Unlike Cavett, whose intellectual pursuits always involved wit and genuine cultural literacy, O'Brien never seems to have become anything other than a smart comedy writer. A wonderful thing, but not, I don't think, a big draw as a late-night talk show host.

I wish him the best of luck in January. Sadly, I think he'll need it.

. . .

Meanwhile, in the world of reality TV, it has finally happened that one of the best of them all -- "Dancing with the Stars" -- has finally jumped the shark by turning entirely too much of the ABC prime-time schedule into constant star-dancing.

The show itself began by insisting on its new "stars" doing two short dances apiece, while giving us no one anyone could legitimately call a "star." (Gymnast Mary Lou Retton and actress Nancy McKeon are as close as they come.)

In its genuinely great tradition of presenting us dance "contestants" no one could possibly imagine on prime time television, the new show had one contestant who was, quite hearteningly, a blind parolympic skier. When it came to the show's second week, she was eliminated in the voting in a "contest" where host Tom Bergeron announced that, for some technical reason, they weren't able to count home votes, so they had to go by last week's "judges' scores."

I'm sorry, that looked awfully fishy to me.

As if that weren't enough, Sundays are now giving us "Dancing with the Stars Junior"on ABC for all those people at home who want the contestants on the show to have 20 times the emotional vulnerability of its adult contestants -- just in case their sensitivity to judges' remarks wasn't large enough. Needless to say, two hours of dancing child performers seems about as creepy as the most cynical might guess.

William Blake's law definitely applies here: "Enough -- or too much."

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