Though he may not legally be able to be funny on television — at least not until his new TBS show premieres in November — Conan O’Brien kicked off his 32-city North American live comedy tour on Monday night with old friends, unexpected guests and a giant inflatable bat. And he was extremely funny.
“This is the first time anyone has ever paid to see me perform,” O’Brien informed the delirious sold-out crowd at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon, before getting in his first dig at NBC:
“But people have paid to make me go away.”
With no couch or desk in sight, Conan lorded over the proceedings from the front of the stage, flanked by longtime sidekick Andy Richter and backed by the very band that spent 17 years with him on TV — without leader Max Weinberg.
The show started with the former Tonight Show Band — now the Legally Prohibited Band — ripping through Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” with trombone player Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg taking the lead on vocals.
For the next 90 minutes, Conan mixed live segments of comedy and music with pre-recorded material shown on a screen behind the stage that served to transition from one piece to the next.
The vibe was much more Late Night than Tonight Show, with Conan strolling on stage looking like a paler, redheaded Barry Gibb, complete with full beard, no tie, and the top two buttons undone on his shirt. The content of the show occasionally strayed to places he’s never gone on TV, with a smattering of profanities tossed in to give the show an edgier feel.
After a lengthy standing ovation greeted him, he admitted to missing the nightly adoration from a live audience. “You have no idea how shallow I am,” he cracked.
Conan never mentioned his former employer by name, but did take a few jabs, most notably in a series of video bits featuring Conan as a Dr. Evil-esque “generic network executive.” The most direct acknowledgment of his disappointment over losing the Tonight Show job came in a monologue discussing the “eight levels of grief over losing your talk show,” which included stages such as denial, anger and “36 hours of Red Bull and Halo.”
Though his trademark self-deprecation permeated his performance, like when he joked about having “no ass” while donning the ridiculous purple suit Eddie Murphy wore in his stand-up film Raw, O’Brien exuded defiant confidence throughout the night, bolstered by a crowd that roared with approval of nearly everything he did.
He also used the format to show off his musical chops, strapping on a guitar for his personalized version of “On the Road Again” and an unfinished original called “The Girl Who Looked Like Conrad Bain,” which he claims to have been writing for 18 years.
And for those concerned that Conan’s settlement with NBC would mean the disappearance of some of his most beloved characters and comedy bits, such worries were squashed when the Masturbating Bear made an early appearance. But in a half-joking concession that his use of the bear may be unauthorized, Conan came up with a new plan. So long, Masturbating Bear — hello, Self-Pleasuring Panda.
Triumph the Insult Comic Dog drew some of the biggest laughs of the night in a pre-taped bit, introducing himself as “the only dog who hasn’t been banged by Jesse James or Tiger Woods” before launching into a tirade that used clever sound editing to bring it a local touch.
The reintroduction of the “Walker, Texas Ranger Lever” was arguably the most popular segment of the evening. Renamed the “Chuck Norris Rural Policeman Handle,” special guest Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock joined Conan and Andy onstage to give it a pull.
And then there was the night’s signature non sequitur: the huge inflatable creature Conan claims to have purchased from Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell tour.
Other guests included Spoon, which performed “I Summon You,” and comedian and ex-Tonight Show writer Deon Cole, who did a short stand-up set.
At the start of the night, Conan copped to modest expectations for the tour, saying he hoped that attendees left “thinking that was sort of worth it.” But by the time O’Brien was tearing into a reflective “I Will Survive” an hour and a half later, it was clear that the formerly devastated members of Team Coco couldn’t be happier with his transformation from late-night pariah to traveling folk hero.
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