Monday, April 26, 2010

CONAN STRIKES BACK! Mr. O'Brien Invades LA, Plus: a Huge TV Roundup.

Back from the weekend, and I want to talk about the amazing, hilarious live show that Mr. CONAN O'BRIEN put on at the Gibson Ampitheater.


- I was lucky to be live and in attendance at the first of two LA-area shows on Conan's "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" Tour, and man, it really was a spectacular evening of goofball insanity. Only a short hop and a skip away from Conan's old Tonight Show studio on the Universal lot, the show was a mix of stand-up comedy, music, audience participation, pre-taped sketches, and lots of randomness thrown in for good measure. Most of all though, it was a tribute to Conan's fans and a sort of manic therapy for the fired-from-TV Conan. There was lots of riffing on Conan's old employer - a sketch where he dressed up as his version of the stereotypical evil TV exec (who stroked a white cat while talking, Dr. Evil-style) was just one example of the many potshots he took at NBCU. At the same time, there was lots of Conan's usual self-deprecating humor, and a lot of jokes about him coming to terms with being jobless after he git unceremoniously ousted as host of The Tonight Show. An early, pre-taped sketch that showed Conan growing a Gandalf-esque beard and letting himself go as a result of post-Tonight Show depression was absolutely hilarious, for example. Conan even took the audience through his version of the twelve-step program for recovering former talk show hosts.

Conan did these things with a wink and a smile, but there was something awesome and genuine about the whole evening. You could tell that Conan was tapping into his old self - the old-school Conan who wasn't constrained by talk-show conventions or network TV standards and practices. It was like you could see Conan rediscovering his old self right there on stage, and it was pretty joyous to watch. That same feeling of euphoric "screw it, let's just have fun" comedy that was present in his last-ever Tonight Show was once again on full display in his live stage show. Several musical numbers exemplified that feeling - I mean, look, Conan is a talented musician, but at the end of the day he's still a guy who was basically performing music in front of an audience for the first time ever. And yet, that was part of the fun - that feeling of "what the hell, let's try something different." There was an infectious feeling of goodwill and community in the air - if Conan wants to don a white jumpsuit and sing rockabilly, then, hey, why the hell not? And if Conan wanted to have one of his songs make use of the giant, blow-up Bat from Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell Tour, then, who were we to argue the inherent awesomeness of said giant balloon bat. Like he sang in his final Tonight Show appearance, Conan was free as a bird now, and no, that bird would not be caged.

Like I was saying though, parts of the show felt totally new - the kind of stuff that Conan had always wanted to do but never really had the right forum to try - and parts of the show were total old-school Conan, a Greatest Hits, if you will. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog showed up via a pretaped segment that was, as expected, totally hilarious. The Masturbating Bear was trotted out, only, due to concern over legal issues, he was quickly redubbed the Self-Pleasuring Panda. Andy Richter, was, of course, in the house, and he traded some vintage banter with his old pal Conan. The old band was there - La Bamba, Pender, Vivino, etc. - everyone except Max. And when I looked to my right, there was the familiar sight of exec-producer Jeff Ross standing in front of the stage, looking slightly tense, eyes intently gazing at the stage.

The night was made even more memorable by the calvacade of celebrities who showed up to participate in the show. I was ecstatic to see the return of the Walker Texas Ranger Lever (it debuted back when I was an intern for Late Night in '04, and became an immediate sensation), and the gag was made even funnier by the guest lever-pullers, including Jonah Hill, Aziz Ansari, Jack McBrayer, and Jon Hamm. Later, in perhaps the night's most memorable moment, Conan began singing Five For Fighting's Superman, in his over-the-top Irish warble, only to be joined onstage by JIM CARREY, who emerged from the crowd in hilarious fashion, decked out in blue and red Superman spandex. As the two went back and forth with dueling microphones, having the craziest sing-off of all-time on stage, it was just one of those comedic moments that I'll never forget. Two crazy comic geniuses just being completely goofy and random and embracing their inner child and going absolutely nuts. Awesome.

(Random aside: as the show started, David Spade walked by us to his front-row seat - he stopped and waved to the crowd, but never got up on stage ...)

Overall, there was so much comedy and entertainment packed into the night that it was hard to process. Tonight Show writer / comedian Deon Cole got up and did a very funny stand-up routine. The opener, musician / comedian Reggie Watts, was really unique and very funny in his own ecclectic way. I'm definitely interested to hear more from him, so kudos to Reggie for getting the crowd properly warmed for for CoCo.

This was one hell of a show. It was just a great feeling to be in the same room with so many like-minded people who appreciated awesome comedy. It kills me when I read some snarky blog like Deadline Hollywood and you get contrarian commentators who call Conan a hack and say his career is dead. Funny. Conan is basically the antithesis of a hack - he's a brilliant writer and performer, and he's now showing just how versatile he is with this kickass live show. I don't know if this always translates to Nielsen ratings (which are outdated and ineffectual anyways), but when I see Conan's comedy it reminds me of why I love comedy. It's smart and biting and yet positive and uplifting in its own roundabout way. It was an amazing experience to join with so many other fans and take part in that. Plus, in all my time working around the periphery of the show - as an intern at Late Night, at NBCU, etc. - I had never actually been in the audience for a Conan show, believe it or not. So this felt like closure, in a way. But moreso than that, it was just a great night of comedy and entertainment.

Okay, a lot of TV Stuff to cover ...

- First, I'll talk about THE SIMPSONS from this past Sunday. Very, very interesting episode, in that it clearly hearkened back to old-school Simpsons episodes that were less random and had more emotional depth. I mean, newer fans may not even realize that way back when, The Simpsons was both hilarious and oftentimes heartfelt and dramatic. Think of the death of Bleeding Gums Murphy, Lisa's Substitute, etc. This episode, about Lisa befriending a beached whale, went for a similar combo of old-school humor and gutpunch emotion. But did it work? Sort of. It's sad to say, but it's been so long since The Simpsons tried for real, genuine emotion (or maybe just that it's been so long since it tried and succeeded), that it was pretty jarring to see this particular story take a rather dark / bleak turn. The intentions were there, but the writing and overall story just weren't up to the task of emulating the classics. It didn't help that it took a good 10+ minutes for the episode to even get to the whale storyline (we opened with a funny but ultimately tangential plotline about Homer switching the Simpson home to wind-power). And yeah, that speaks to the fact that the current story structure of a typical Simpsons episode is totally out of whack. What's with the fourth act now being only a few minutes long, for example? Definitely not conducive to telling a great story. In any case, despite all that, this was still one of the better Simpsons episodes in a while. It had an ambitious premise, some very sharp humor (loved the opening movie parody with a Tic-Tac-Toe themed movie - "Tic Tac Nooooooo!"), and took a real shot at injecting some pathos and emotional heft into the proceedings. At the least, it was nice to see a Simpsons episode that truly aimed high, even if it didn't quite hit the bullseye. Plus, kudos to this one for some awesome animation - some of the shots were amazing to look at. And hey, nice shout out to South Park in the intro - good to see some solidarity amongst subversive animated series.

My Grade: B+

- Some quick, semi-belated thoughts on this past Thursday's "Must-See-TV" comedies. First off, I thought THE OFFICE was pretty decent, but I also worry about the Erin character a bit. I don't know, she started off as a normal-seeming but semi-quirky receptionist, but now she is a full on weirdo. To me, The Office works best when most of the characters are semi-realistic, with a couple of true oddballs like Dwight to inject wackiness into the storylines. So, yeah, this Erin-centric episode was very funny in parts, but still felt a little off simply because the character has had a somewhat awkward evolution since her first appearance. Still, there were enough hilarious Michael, Dwight, Andy, and Kevin moments in this one to make for an entertaining episode. One additional complain though: since when are characters like Jim and Pam so mean? Them laughing at the Kevin joke seemed a bit cruel and callous, although for some reason that's the direction that those characters have been heading towards.

My Grade: B

- COMMUNITY, on the other hand, continued its recent hot streak with an episode that could only be called farily brilliant. The episode functioned as a mafia movie parody, only in this case, Abed was the unlikely boss who rises to power when he gains control of the cafeteria's supply of coveted chicken fingers. The increasing absurdity that resulted from the gang becoming a defacto mafia family made for nonstop hilarity. And the unique setup allowed for the pop-culture references to flow freely. The entire cast seemed to be on top of their games in this one, and it was, overall, further proof that Community has really become something special as its first season progresses.

My Grade: A-

- Meanwhile, 30 ROCK aired two episodes Thursday night, both of which had some really, really funny moments that, I think, were vintage 30 Rock. I agree with many that some of the love triangle stuff is a little tired at this point. I really don't want 30 Rock to be a show that makes us get emotionally invested in its characters' love lives, I want 30 Rock to be a show that, sure, has the occasional moment of poignancy, but, mostly, is all about the laughs. Luckily, even if the first of the two eps got a little much with Jack's decision between Elizabeth Banks and Julianne Moore and her bootleg Boston accent. That said, there were some phenomenal moments of random hilarity as well. Bitch Hunter, anyone? Holy lord, that was awesome - and sweet Will Ferrell cameo to boot. Also, Tracy Morgan had several lines scattered throughout the two eps that were just amazing - hell, even the weird way he pronounced "quarry" had me bowled over in laughter. And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the not-so-subtle jabs at the whole Leno-Conan diasco via a poor janitor named Khonani who was promised the 11:30 shift but got the shaft in favor of another janitor. The storyline was fun - almost felt like they were holding back a bit, but still, good stuff. In any case, these were some really hilarious scenes and lines of dialogue in both episodes, so ...

My Grade:

Ep 1: B+
Ep 2: A-

- SMALLVILLE continued to plod along this past week. I don't know, I am just getting so sick of the show on so many different levels at this point. And it's really frustrating, because there have been a few moments of greatness this season. We got a tantalizing glimpse at the potential of Smallville if it was actually written intelligently and with passion for the characters. But now, it's back to the same old cheesy mediocrity that fans of this show have had to endure for years now. I mean, look, there are certain things that keep me coming back. I like some aspects of the Lois-Clark relationship. I like the DC Universe slowly taking shape within the world of Smallville. I like, sometimes, the sense of fun and adventure that the show brings to the table.

But the show needs a change of direction. The Blur storyline has got to go. What started out as a throwaway reference to Clark's psuedo-superhero ID has now become a full-fledged character on the show, and I'm sorry, but it's completely lame. I hate The Blur. I hate Clark Kent in a black trenchcoat and black Superman T-shirt. I hate that when he talks to people as The Blur, he stands in the shadows just right so that, somehow, these people can't see his face. Honestly, it's ridiculous. This episode alone had several Blur sequences that were just insanely dumb. Guys - shadows don't work that way, you can't stand just right so that every part of you is visible except your face. The Blur as a concept is stupid. In execution, it's groan-inducing. It's one more way for the show to endlessly delay Clark's transition to Superman, and it's handled in the most clunky way imaginable. It sucks, and it has to go.

Meanwhile, the Zod storyline has no intensity, no sense of urgency. It's been dragged out for so long now, that the character has lost any sense of menace or cool-factor that he once had. Zod's involvement in this season has mostly consisted of a couple of big moments followed by endless filler. I don't care about him anymore, I just want to see him go away forever and never appear on Smallville again.

In addition, this episode introduced DC Comics staple Maxwell Lord. I was excited by this, as Lord is a really fun character in the comics. In his original incarnation, Lord was so interesting because he was technically a good guy, but was also sort of sleazy and manipulative. Later, he became more of a full-fledged villain, but even then, he was more crooked politician than would-be world conqueror. Anyways, WTF. Maxwell Lord on Smallville was nothing like that - he was a cold and calculating scientist at Checkmate who was balding and spoke in deep dulcet tones. Are you serious? Ugh.

Finally, the main focus of this episode was on the Lois-Clark relationship, which might be okay except that the whole dynamic is completely played-out on Smallville, after years and years of the exact same types of storylines with Lana. Plus, the whole thing makes no sense the way the writers have set it up. In the comics, once Lois falls in love with CLARK (as opposed to Superman) - that's when he realizes it's finally time to tell her his secret ID. On Smallville, Lois and Clark have a very close, loving relationship. Lois is already getting herself into crazy situations every week, even without knowing the Blur's ID. Plus, the only real recurring villains (Tess, Checkmate, Zod) know Clark's secret, so they could already attack Lois if they wanted to. Basically, there's NO REASON for Clark to not tell Lois that he is The Blur. None. Therefore, I wanted to stab my TV screen when I had to endure scene after scene that introduces manufactured tension in their relationship due to a totally faulty premise.

Man, it sucks. Smallville aired one of the best TV episodes in many months with "Absolute Justice" earlier this year. In those two hours, we caught a glimpse of how much potential there is in this universe. And who knows, there may be enough juice in the tank to give us one or two more decent episodes this season. But Smallville, as a whole, is broken. It makes me sad, but there's no point in sugarcoating. The show is simply a mess.

My Grade: D+

- Okay, that's all for now. But check back very soon for 24 and CHUCK thoughts! Dammit all.

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