Critics don’t care for Conan O’Brien’s ‘painfully unfunny’ debut

CORRECTION  TV O'Brien on Tonight

As the years go by, I find it very difficult to watch late-night programming. The only people I really enjoy are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and too often I catch the reruns of those shows the next day. I don’t even remember the last time I stayed up to watch David Letterman or Jay Leno, much less Conan O’Brien. Out of all of those guys, Letterman is the only one who really makes me chuckle. Jay and Conan, not so much. It’s not that I’m a snob – I get why Jay is popular, with his middle-of-the-road, G-rated comedy. And Conan with his collegial, prank-and-pratfall sense of humor – it’s just not my humor. I get more enjoyment out of humor that’s bitter, sardonic, crass and dirty. It’s not for everyone, and if I were trying to make a hit late-night show, I might go for Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien.

So it’s surprising to me that critics didn’t seem to enjoy Conan’s debut on The Tonight Show last night. Didn’t they know what they were getting? They signed up for humor that would offend no one, and what they got was humor that didn’t amuse anyone. US Weekly has a rundown on what the nation’s television critics are saying about Conan’s debut:

Conan O’Brien made his Tonight Show debut Monday — but critics weren’t exactly roaring with laughter.

“After one show, let’s say he’s a work in progress,” wrote Randee Dawn of The Hollywood Reporter.

“O’Brien commanded the stage, but seemed more comfortable laughing it up with erstwhile sidekick-turned-announcer Andy Richter than in interacting with his 380 audience members.”

O’Brien’s opening monologue mostly consisted of “sketch upon sketch” — notes The New York Post’s TV critic Linda Stasi — most of which were “at times, painfully unfunny.”

In one scene, O’Brien — who spent the last 17 years as host of NBC’s Late Night — was shown jogging across the country from New York to Los Angeles. “I think I’ve timed this move perfectly,” he quipped. “I’m on a last-place network, I moved to a state that’s bankrupt and The Tonight Show is sponsored by General Motors.”

Other clips showed him giving a tram tour of Universal Studios, sitting in the last row of a Lakers game (to show how well he’s acclimated to L.A.) and paying homage to his beat-up 1992 Ford Taurus.

“Again,” said Stasi, “not a million big laughs.”

David Hinckley of New York’s The New York Daily News said the bits “lasted too long.” Said Hinckley, “He’s from the world of sketch comedy, not monologues, and he sticks with an idea as long as he feels something funny could happen.”

Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly got a chuckle out of the sketches.

“All in all, a large-scale, impressive debut,” he wrote. “But we all know that success in late-night depends on the long haul — Conan knows this as well as anyone. So now I want to see how he follows up his glitzy debut.”

Added USA Today’s Robert Bianco: “Overall, the show wasn’t O’Brien at his funniest, but it was funny enough to get by.”

David Letterman definitely took notice of his new competition.

“I’m still here,” Mr. Letterman told his audience on his show Monday night. “I knocked off another competitor.”

He said that his mother had called him to say, “Well, David, I see you didn’t get the Tonight Show again.'” When he said he told his mom that he had Bill Cosby as his guest, his mother replied: “‘OK, maybe I’ll switch from Conan.'”

[From US Weekly]

Yeah, Conan will get better, I guess. Or not, and people will still watch. The other day, I heard that ABC’s 11:30 p.m. Nightline still has great ratings, and that the show’s often beat Letterman and gone market-share to market-share with Leno. Personally, when I do stay up, it’s usually to watch Charlie Rose – my crazy local PBS programmers started putting Charlie on at 11:30 about a year ago, and I hate it. It used to come on in the early evening, and I could geek out on whoever Charlie was interviewing the night before.

Here’s Conan and his wife Elizabeth and kids Neve and Beckett spend a little family time at the park on Sunday in L.A. Images thanks to Pacific Coast News.

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31 Responses to “Critics don’t care for Conan O’Brien’s ‘painfully unfunny’ debut”

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  1. Call Me Al says:

    Aww I missed it. I wish Conan good luck.

  2. Gena says:

    I love Conan. I’m just sad I haven’t been able to watch him the last two years since living in the UK!

  3. diddy says:

    Conan would always be funny to me…i would forever be jealous of lisa kudrow because she dated him for a longtime.

  4. Shane says:

    The critics can suck it. Conan is awesome.

  5. ChristinaT says:

    i love conan but i’m gonna miss jay leno… i’d stay up every night to watch him… he kicks ass!

  6. tiki says:

    Please.. Conan was freaking hilarious last night. So much better than Leno and Letterman. This is what I expected though, I dont think most people over 40 appreciate his humor.

  7. Dani says:

    Right on Shane!

    I watched and thought it was awesome. I am a devout fan though, but I still have one critique–I agree that there was too much “sketch upon sketch,” which were all previously taped. A good monologue is the staple of a late night television show; yeah, it’s cheesy and practically unbearable when done poorly, but it’s part of the gig, and makes the audience feel comfortable and familiarized.

  8. Sauronsarmy says:

    Ugh, I’ve always thought Conan was annoying. I don’t hate him but his shtick is tiresome. I agree with Kaiser I only watch The Daily Show.

  9. Lem says:

    folks watched Jay for years and he was ‘so funny’ he had to explain every joke.
    Conan will be fine. Damn has he been on late nite for 17 years? *hangs head* I’m getting old. When did that happen?

  10. nimble minx says:

    I think Conan’s type of humor definitely appeals to a certain type of person.

    I personally think he’s funnier than both Leno and Letterman, but I understand how some people just don’t appreciate it. (like my parents…a generational thing, perhaps?)

  11. notafan says:

    Conan has always been too much “inside” and “too hip for the room” humor for me. Now I can watch both Leno AND Letterman each night.

  12. barneslr says:

    The Tonight Show ended when Johnny Carson retired. I never watched a single episode of Leno and doubt seriously that I will watch O’Brien. They may both be funny men in their way, but JC had a charm that neither of them could ever come close to.

  13. guest says:

    loved leno. can’t stand conan. won’t watch.

  14. bella says:

    leno bored me to tears. i like dave but last few years I DVRed the shows that I wanted to watch.

    If video killed the radio star then TiVO killed the late night talk show.

  15. BlueSkies says:

    Does anyone know where I can view the ad for Conan and the tonight show? The one with him running on the beach and talking about his pale Irish skin?

  16. aleach says:

    i only saw from the sketch about him driving a beat up ford taurus around la & thought it was pretty funny. i have the same stupid sense of humor as conan, though so i think his facial expressions are hillarious.
    leno was NOT funny at all. he was just…blah.

  17. it's offensive says:

    Letterman has the quintessential smarmy, wink-wink nudge-nudge humor. A notch above Porky’s. Not funny, usually on the nasty side of cruel and definitely less then the intelligence he thinks he portrays.

    And his interviews are not only boring, they’re also kiss ass to the celebrity.

  18. HashBrowns says:

    I kinda half watch late night shows. I’ve been watching Jimmy Fallon’s show on Hulu which then turned into watching Jay Leno. Jay’s little bits are funny, especially Jay Walking and I love his interviews.

    Conan has a particular audience. I like his humor-it’s sophomoric, yes, but it has a hint of intelligence that usually doesn’t allow it do go into purely crass, disgusting humor. Except for the masturbating bear. Which I did not find funny.

    I watched the opening Tonight Show with Conan and thought it was great, especially the Universal Tour bit. Circle! Circle!

  19. Shelby says:

    I’m with Kaiser on this one. Maybe I’m just getting old, but frat boy humor just doesn’t get laughs out of me anymore. And the pre-taped skits kind of put me off; the fun of a late show is the interaction with the audience.
    Leno’s a great guy, but he puts me to sleep. I’ll stick with Letterman and Colbert. I prefer a host who doesn’t kiss ass.

  20. Shay says:

    I’ve always liked Conan from Pimp Bot to the Masterbating bear. I didn’t care for the show last night but I tried to give him a chance. I think he’s trying to keep his edge while also keeping the old folks happy. It’s a generational thing. My mom watched Leno but couldn’t stand Conan. I thought Leno was a tool but loved Conan.
    I’m glad that Andy’s back maybe that will make some some of Conan’s fan base happy.

  21. Jules says:

    Conan is hilarious and I’m not concerned about him one bit. I have never sat through Leno’s monologue, it’s so incredibly boring and un-funny. There’s a reason why he has been replaced after all.

  22. OXA says:

    I like Chelsea Handler at 11pm. I tried to watch Conan but it was painfully unfunny.

  23. AC says:

    @ Jules,

    Great point! I can’t sit through a Lena monologue more than 5 minutes, much less a Leno interview!

    Conan is very funny and much funnier than Letterman, who I think is kinda overrated. Mean-spirited humor can only stay funny but for so long.

    I wish Conan all the best!

  24. Ashley says:

    Don’t tell me the West Coast sucked all the funny from Conan? Why do New Yorkers and East Coasters in general make funnier comedians?

  25. rachelb says:

    He was a teeny bit rusty but still hilarious. His Universal Studios tour skit was hysterical, and I love his Taurus. It’ll take a couple of shows for him to get his bearings down but he’ll be fine. I just hope he doesn’t change a lot from the old show, I loved it just as it was.

  26. Lee says:

    Conan is a genius. These critics are not even sufficiently imaginative, much less intelligent enough to criticize him.

  27. apsutter says:

    Conan is hilarious…..his sketches are always the best part of the show. I liked the tour of the Universal lot last night. Leno is alright and Letterman is just plain boring. Conan is definitely for younger people and always has crazy skits and whatnot. Leno and Letterman are for older people and take nor risks and , consequently, are not as funny

  28. Jag says:

    My issue is that he’s now hosting The Tonight Show, which is supposed to be different than the Late Show with Conan O’Brian. If they just wanted the Conan Show, why didn’t they just move his show to the Tonight Show’s spot and be done with it?

  29. TIM says:


  30. justme says:

    This guy is BRUTAL!!!!!. He doesn’t have a funny bone in his body.

  31. Robert Kelly says:

    I think NBC should have gone with someone thats funnier I freaking hate the fact Jay is gone CO’B is not funny it seems his writers try harder to get the point across while Jay was always in the drivers seat even on a bad ratings day. I will miss the band and most of all Jay-Walking Conan sucks!!!

    Miss you Jay Leno