NEW YORK >> Conan O’Brien relaunched his TV career on Monday night with a stylishly back-to-basics hour that radiated hard-won lessons from his brief stay hosting “The Tonight Show.”
With his new TBS show titled simply “Conan,” O’Brien seemed appealingly stoked yet comfortable in his new home at 11 p.m. ET and on basic cable, originating from a sleek, cozy set with a full moon poised on a seaside backdrop.
If there were very few surprises on the premiere, well, how could there have been after the incessant online hype and all the press attention showered on his much-anticipated return? Besides, O’Brien was back with his longtime sidekick Andy Richter and most of his trusty house band members, now led by Jimmy Vivino (and renamed The Basic Cable Band).
Even O’Brien’s post-“Tonight Show” beard seems familiar by now.
But what’s important is, the show lived up to its promises. As promised, it was looser, quirkier, more like “Late Night,” where O’Brien thrived for nearly 16 years, than the mainstream “Tonight Show,” where he didn’t.
“Conan” opened with a funny look back at O’Brien’s tumultuous year after he refused NBC’s bid to move “Tonight” to 12:05 a.m.
He was mowed down by machine-gun-toting NBC hit men at a security booth, a la Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather.” He applied for a job in advertising and was turned down by Don Draper (“Mad Men” star Jon Hamm), who brusquely reminded him, “It’s 1965 — and you’re 2 years old.” From behind the counter at a Burger King, he reminisced to an impatient customer about his talk-show past.
Likewise, his monologue mined laughs from recent history, which found him leaving “Tonight” in January after just eight months, with Jay Leno reclaiming the host chair.
O’Brien welcomed viewers to his “second annual first show” and explained why he named the new show “Conan”: “So I’d be harder to replace.”
He acknowledged that “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 boasted that his new show is already scoring “in TBS’ key demographic: people who can’t afford HBO.”
And he insisted, “I’ve dreamed of being a talk-show host on basic cable ever since I was 46.” He’s now 47.
O’Brien rocked out, singing and playing guitar alongside his musical guest, Jack White.
Before that, his first couch guest was Seth Rogen, who had a lot to say about marijuana and could have used some to calm down.
Then O’Brien greeted “Glee” star Lea Michele, who made a slightly more engaging appearance.
He asked her about GQ magazine’s racy layout of “Glee” cast members. Then, for “Glee” fans who were offended by the high-school-themed photos, the ever-self-deprecating O’Brien offered a way to make the steamy photo of Michele seem less hot: Insert a vintage image of him from high school beside her in the shot.
But as they chatted, a thud interrupted them from backstage.
“Basic cable,” O’Brien explained with a shrug. “There’s a Meineke muffler shop right behind us.”
The audience applauded.
“He’s making the best of it,” O’Brien said of himself.
Conan was back, with the rest of Team Coco. How he will fare in the long term — and how long he relies on basic-cable jokes — remains to be seen.