BARBARIAN AT THE GATE
HOW LATE NIGHT'S CONAN O'BRIEN CAN NAVIGATE THE TALK-SHOW MAZE AND WIN THE COLLEGE CROWD
Dear Conan: Okay, it’s hard being the voice of a generation. But you’ve been given the chance to inject a new sensibility into an outmoded form-the talk show-and you need to exploit that opportunity in order to emerge from David Letterman’s gargantuan shadow. Your intended core audience, whether they’re called Generation X’ers or just college-students-up-late-studying, enjoyedLetterman’s manic deconstruction of Johnny Carson’s sedate chat hour- but they kept one nimble, Nintendo-trained finger on the remote control. To succeed, you’ll need to go even further, to emulate the X’ers’ ironic distance from prepackaged entertainment, to undermine the ludicrousness of your having a talk show at all. Here are a few areas to concentrate on: You. We know you’re the new guy. But don’t keep reminding us. And while self- debasement can elicit a few chuckles, more often than not it’s simply pathetic-especially when it’s disingenuous. Cut out the ”You’re not amused by me at all, are you?”-style lines and that tinny, self-congratulatory giggle. You want viewers to see you as their surrogate, probing your guests, embracing or challenging their views-and often, just harshing on them with the carefree cynicism of the Slacker. What you don’t want them to see is some pitiful creature flailing in the face of celebrity.
Your sidekick. About Andy Richter-lose him. No one wants to witness forced camaraderie between you and some portly frat boy; your audience is watching the show to escape from guys like him. If you’re going to have a retro-Carson second banana, at least find one who’s quick on the quip. For that matter, have you ever thought of hiring a woman? Now that would add some fresh perspective to the late-night boys’ club.
Your band. If you really wanted to appeal to a college-age audience, you could have at least hired a bandleader who didn’t remind them of their older siblings’-hell, their moms’-taste in music. With their raucous, rote party rock, your seven-piece band (led by ex-Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg) sounds like Gary U.S. Bond’s pickup group at a Six Flags gig. Also, you could have at least picked a musician with whom you can interact-not some guy who sits and grins behind a kit. (Just what supposedly ”hip” late-night television needs-drum solos.) We hear you originally considered hiring Lounge Lizard John Lurie; better yet, did you ever think of approaching Tom Waits, Robyn Hitchcock, Exene Cervenka-even Richard Carpenter or Frank Sinatra Jr.? All have either offbeat sensibilities, pop smarts, or kitsch value-elements your show sorely lacks.
Your sketches. You say you’d like to incorporate more Saturday Night Live- style bits into the show. But in case you’ve forgotten, SNL devotes nearly an hour and a half to sketches. The standard SNL skit requires a long buildup, which won’t work in an hour-long talk show, whose caffeinated viewers want entertainment in quick bursts. Dry humor is fine; interminable humor is not.