Z on TV: A stronger, more self-assured Conan debuts on TBS

(From the Z on TV blog)

I was not a big fan of Conan last year on NBC. I thought he was too nervous, needy and always trying too hard to be a network star in some weird sense he had of the Johnny Carson tradition.

But I kind of like the guy and show I saw Monday night on TBS. He seems more certain of who he is and comfortable and confident in that role. If he was pitcher in baseball, I would say he's playing within himself instead of trying to throw too hard.

He's not straining and begging to be loved the way he was last year. Maybe the outpouring of affection from his fans last year has made him feel less insecure -- maybe even loved a little bit. Or maybe, he just grew up and got a better sense of who he was by going through the kind of adversity he faced.

Whatever the case, he and his show are easier to like. The hour flew by, and it seemed much looser, organic and easy-going than anything I saw last year by him on NBC. Of course, it is rehearsed and everyone is nervous on opening night, but he made it feel like he was having fun -- and that's the trick for such a show, isn't it? Jay Leno's show never has that kind of natural-looking ease. The humor always feels artificial and TV phony.

I even liked the videos -- and I don't think I have ever laughed at a Conan video before. The opening video Monday night -- with the "Bonnie and Clyde" special effects and the jokes about basic cable -- was a clever comic take on the journey he's been on since saying no to NBC's plan to move him to midnight to make room for a failed Leno. You couldn't help but smile at Larry King as an angel in the video, and the "Mad Men" moment was superb.

Nice music, too. The house group, Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band, provided some hard-driving edge during the hour. And I hope Conan keeps strapping on the guitar and joining them from time to time. The number he did with the band and musical guest Jack White pumped a ton of energy into the set.

The weakest part of the show: the guest stars. Seth Rogen seemed all artifice and performance with his stories about sex, and "Glee's" Lea Michele's came and went way too fast.

Conan's funniest moment came during Michele's segment when their conversation was interrupted by a loud noise backstage.

"Basic cable," Conan said. "There's a Meineke Muffler shop right back there."

Conan was joking all night about his seemingly downward arc from network to basic cable TV. And when he wasn't, he had guest videos from the likes of Ricky Gervais mocking his more modest surroundings.

But I don't see it that way at all. And I don't think Conan's fans do either.

I think the size, scope and feel of the new show on TBS are far better suited to his talents. The easy-going hour provided a few laughs, some strong songs and an engaging host who to seemed to know exactly what he and the show were all about.

"Conan" looks like it is already settling in for what could be a long, long run.

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