“I’ve been here for two hours — and I can tell you we are losing the war on drugs,” Conan O’Brien deadpanned to the rowdy audience inside Bonnaroo’s sweltering comedy tent Friday afternoon. “I love nothing more than doing comedy in a tent at one in the afternoon for people who haven’t slept for two days.”
The former (and future) late-night host brought his twisted variety show — his Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television band, sidekick Andy Richter and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog — to the very muggy 1,800 seat theater in Manchester, Tennessee for two sets this weekend. Friday marked the comic’s first-ever festival appearance and fans lined up as early as 5 a.m., Conan noted — “Either that or they just passed out next to this tent.” The demand for the show was so high, the performance was also filmed and broadcast to a packed audience inside the nearby Cinema tent.
After an explosive R&B set from O’Brien’s band, the show began with a hilarious video of Conan two months ago, lounging around his house in a fat suit soon after losing his Tonight Show gig, surrounded by pizza crusts and Budweiser cans — and a wig and fake facial hair that made him resemble someone between Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and the Geico caveman. He munched KFC by his pool, jumped alone on a trampoline and made a snack by tossing a half-tub of Crisco and a bag of Doritos into a blender. Everything changes, though, when he gets a call for a 32-city tour.
Aside from his surprise show at Jack White’s Third Man Studios two days prior, the Bonnaroo set was likely O’Brien’s most intimate gig since his years before Late Night. Conan sweated constantly and bitched about the heat: “I see like six guys wearing shirts and that’s it,” he said. “Guys, this tent is air-conditioned. It’s only 95 degrees in here.” He said he didn’t wear shorts because “My legs look like two ivory Slim Jims.”
In the musical portion of the show, Conan strapped on a Stratocaster and led the band through his now well-known sing-alongs of “I Will Survive” and “On the Road Again,” with their customized lyrics about losing his show. The incessant I-got-screwed jokes didn’t always work, but the Bonnaroo-centric material always scored. “I ate some mushrooms earlier and you wouldn’t believe the crazy shit I saw,” he said. “I saw someone selling $12 chicken fingers.” He marveled at the hippie crowd, joking, “This is a big day for me. In six months I’ve gone from hosting The Tonight Show to performing at a refugee camp.”
Halfway through the set, O’Brien introduced Andy Richter, who emerged singing cheesy country music, wearing Bermuda shorts and a jacket. After Conan prodded Richter as to why he wore the business coat, Richter replied, “From the waist up I’m all business, but from the waist down, I’m all pleasure.”
The crowd also welcomed Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who brought his demented nightclub act to the muggy venue. Introducing himself as “the only dog in America not banged by Jesse James or Tiger Woods,” Triumph roasted the audience in his crackled tone: “I haven’t seen a shit hole this big since I sixty-nined a Saint Bernard.” The foul-mouthed puppet played several shows at the tent himself last year but said he usually travels to Manchester to buy meth lab supplies. There was also an impromptu pop quiz on Tennessee: “The state bird? The mocking bird. State animal? Miley Cyrus.”
As he has on other tour dates, Conan rolled out his prized rock & roll prop: the inflatable bat used on Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell tour: a smiling brown creature that Richter said looked like a bouncy house for kids’ birthdays. After deflating it, the late-night star brought out his famed Walker, Texas Ranger lever. Richter and O’Brien riffed off ridiculous Walker clips, and saved the crowd’s favorite for last: a young Haley Joel Osmont stands next to Chuck Norris and announces, “Walker told me I have AIDS.” “Walker’s not even testing people,” Conan joked. “He’s just randomly telling people they have AIDS.” The punch line was harsh and wickedly funny — the kind of humor O’Brien couldn’t pull off on Tonight but will hopefully resurrect when he returns to TV on cable this fall.