Talking Movies

March 29, 2011

Team CoCo

Writing about comedy is guaranteed to be unfunny, so there’s a good reason for this post not appearing on April Fool’s Day.

I’ve been watching Conan O’Brien’s new talk-show on 3e since before Christmas when Channel 4 were conducting late-night reruns of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60. Since 2007 I’ve taken a show from auditions to performance in just over a week in UCD’s Dramsoc, which led to the shock realisation on revisiting Studio 60 that the not-SNL sketch-show Sorkin depicted was essentially a theatrical production. People tear thru various props and costumes and try to remember their lines after minimal scripting and rehearsing, while behind the scenes sets are desperately wheeled around, struck, and positioned for cameras. If a sketch works it plays brilliantly and if it doesn’t the performers and writers get to hear what 300 people not laughing sounds like… Why would a comedian like Conan O’Brien, who wrote the only episodes of The Simpsons I haven’t found unbearably smug, give that up by trading being a writer on Saturday Night Live for hosting a talk-show?

It took an embarrassingly long time for me to realise the answer. Conan stretches his opening monologue to as much as 15 minutes some nights with sketches. This means he can perform as much as 75 minutes of stand-up a week; effectively a new stand-up show’s worth of material every week rather than every year; and have it laughed at by a good audience in-house, but also be seen by millions across America – even if the TBS channel on basic cable reaches fewer people than NBC’s The Tonight Show. It also allows him to indulge his spectacular physicality. Conan can use his flailing body and dances to deflect from gags falling flat, and frequently does by acting out what he’s just said, to garner a laugh from bad material; but his elastic body and mobile face also sets him apart from every other talk-show host. You can’t see Jay Leno letting himself get rocketed across the stage, or be attacked with a real and very sharp samurai sword by a blindfolded stuntman going far too fast thru a barely rehearsed fight choreography. Conan is the only talk-show host in America who could sit next to an owl and make the same expressions, to the point where the staring spectacled owl whirled round to check, rightly suspecting that it was being mocked.

Conan is not to everyone’s taste. Last summer, alongside an unforgettable drawing (possibly nodding to Snoopy) of Conan standing to salute while crashing in a flaming Sopwith Camel, Wired memorably described Conan’s comedy as Cubist Absurdism which was being replaced by what they termed the sure-thing comediocrity of Jay Leno. And if cubist absurdism is the right term for Andy Richter and Conan playing a real-life Angry Birds with cut-outs of the cast of Jersey Shore, before Conan kills off a Snookie balloon with a blow-dart, then I guess I like cubist absurdism. Here’s why. Jay Leno may hit the laugh-mark more often but it’s most always a moderate laugh. Conan has a lot more dud jokes than Leno, but when he hits the mark, you will laugh more than you will at the best Leno jokes because Conan’s are so….you guessed….absurd.

(I would at this point attempt a serious comparison between Conan and the philosophy of Albert Camus but that would be an April 1st type piece.)

Conan airs weekdays at midnight on 3e.

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