Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Conan O'Brien (and many friends) @ Radio City Music Hall

Conan O'Brien; Reggie Watts
@ Radio City Music Hall
New York, NY - June 1, 2010

Just 200 feet from the scene of the crime, Conan O'Brien made his performing return to New York City via the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, a lengthy cross-continental romp designed to keep him fresh and in the public consciousness while Jay Leno entertains a couple million soft-headed old fuddy-duddies and Conan himself prepares for his autumn return on TBS.

The basic format of the live show was a drawn out, uncensored (but still fairly PG-13, TV-14 whatever) version of his television show. Andy Richter was back in his old sidekick role. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog appeared in a taped monologue which included an old Conan-era Simpsons bit - the dubbed-in specific proper noun to fit between the generic jokes. That bear who found onanistic pleasure (and whose original name may be the intellectual property of the guys across the street) was there.

Despite the old format, Conan relied somewhat surprisingly on musical numbers - including a poke at mundane upper class upbringing and ending the show with a cover of "The Weight" (snob moment: the version was clearly inspired by the Band's performance in The Last Waltz, what with the Cokettes singing verses). But Conan's emphasis on music was unnecessary as he continues to work with the once-upon-a-time Max Weinberg 7 (now known as the Legally Prohibited Band). The outfit, now officially led by Jimmy Vivino, remain the amazingly tight and talented troupe they have been for 17 years. How did Mark Pender hold that note?!?! Also none too shabby was the appearance of Vampire Weekend - playing a rocking version of "Wolcott" in the guest-band slot.

And in the stand-up guest slot was Deon Cole, a staff writer on the Tonight Show run, who relied on a narrative of surveying the audience for future material and racial difference humor (and who riffed on some hipster's pretty direct racial bait call-out). Good delivery, creepy eyes.

The big spectacle though were the marquee guests. Stephen Colbert appeared in character to question Conan's New York credentials and to challenge Conan to a dance-off. Stephen pulled his classic fake injury move in order to get a sub in. Who else but Jon Stewart - Conan's future 11pm rival - dressed in Mexican dance regalia to save his Comedy Central colleague? If that wasn't enough, Paul Rudd, John Krasinski, and Bill Hader all appeared to pull the lever for random Walker, Texas Ranger clips - the clips needing no celebrity cameos to be extremely awesome.

With all of this surrounding him, it was easy - and perhaps somewhat purposely so - to forget that Conan was the star of all this. As naturally funny as Conan is, the goofy, lanky, awkward geek always shined most when being in good company. That company includes the audience. Unlike any other late night host, Conan had a direct, almost intimate relationship with his fans. That intimacy carried over into the live show, specifically in a bit in which the crowd is supposed to respond in conversation with Conan. The crowd quickly caught on that they/we were supposed to be difficult and to make Conan feel inadequate. And everyone pretty much got the joke.

Conan's bitterness over the fiasco at NBC came up consistently throughout the show but it never dominated the set (despite the tour title and the crazily close surroundings of this venue). And the bitterness was tinged with that sweet sense of humanity this guy has always had. Conan made as much fun of his own expected, perceived despondency as he made of the suits (and The Chin) at the network. And his rant about living in a media world which has not one but two shows about guys who make cakes, maybe signaled that the future of Conan's comedy may be in the vein of a wise old salty crank.

Reggie Watts, a fast rising comedic/music talent, opened the night with the kind of skill at dissecting and reinventing the English language in ways not seen since the likes of Carlin. His explanation of music, and the balladry of how an owl eats, took apart both the art of description and the deceptive ease of how certain music feels. The parody on rap was biting and a bit heavy handed but was dwarfed by Reggie's actual ability to rap. His accent switching was an old trope but a well crafted one. Nothing proves the persnickety nature of the language like an Oxford accent.

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