onan O'Brien is making his long-anticipated return to late night with tonight's premiere of his new TBS show, "Conan." In one of the "more public bitter exits in recent memory," the lanky comedian left NBC last January after it abruptly asked O'Brien to cede his "Tonight Show" hosting duties to Jay Leno. Since then, O'Brien has launched the wildly successful "Team Coco" online campaign, arguably raising his profile. Can his new show — on a cable station, not a broadcast network — live up to expectations? (Watch Conan's "Show Zero" promo)
Maybe, but he's really competing with Jon Stewart now: It isn't about keeping up with Leno and Letterman anymore. O'Brien's real challenge will be to "unseat Stewart," fresh off a P.R. and ratings triumph with his "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," says The Wrap. Last month, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" also pulled in more viewers than Letterman or Leno in the coveted 18-34 demo, the same young, internet-savvy, cable-friendly audience that O'Brien will be targeting.
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And, O'Brien is not exactly hysterically funny: The TBS show's "preview promos and online snippets aren't that funny," says Eric Deggans in the St. Petersburg Times. They highlight a much-noted O'Brien weakness: "He's often amusing, but not hilarious."
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And cable comes with budget challenges: After 17 years of living high on the hog at NBC, Conan and his staff are "adjusting to cable-sized portions," says Scott Collins in the Los Angeles Times. At TBS, Conan will be working with a smaller budget and a more modest set, but "that may not be a bad thing." It could make for freer, more creative comedy.
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Conan and cable are potentially a strong match...: O'Brien owns his TBS show, and he'll have the "creative control and freedom he never had on broadcast television," says Ree Hines at MSNBC. "A freer, less censored O'Brien can't be a bad thing," and it could mean a return to Conan at his quirky best, not what we saw on "The Tonight Show" when he had to tweak "his comedic gift to suit the somewhat more conservative, mainstream style of the legendary show he inherited."
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... if he hasn't been absent from TV for too long: There's a risk that O'Brien's larger fan base has lost interest since he disappeared from TV last January, says Jon Friedman at MarketWatch. Hopefully, his absence will have made fans' hearts grow fonder, but "it's up to O’Brien to live up to all the hype."
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