In the year 2020: the future of Conan

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / November 7, 2010

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This week, Conan O’Brien announced his next project, a TV show called “:-)’’set to premiere on C-SPAN3 this winter.

First, though, the host will finish his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Basic Cable Tour,’’ his grass-roots effort at Red Lobsters across the country to stay in touch with fans — and to process his own grief — after the Animal Planet debacle. You know the story, of course, which rocked the press for months after the network summarily dumped him for the return of “The Tonight Show With Bubbles the Chimp.’’

The critics had embraced O’Brien’s Animal Planet series, “Cirque du Coco,’’ which he co-hosted with the Masturbating Bear and which welcomed guests including Cloppy the Horse, Vomiting Kermit, the Coked-up Werewolf, Tomorry the Ostrich, and the Horny Manatee. Tom Shales exclaimed, “I’m cuckoo for Coco and his right-hand man,’’ and the New York Times paid especial notice to the Masturbating Bear, “a clever representative of American political disarray.’’ But with mediocre ratings among the pet-loving demo, Animal Planet dropped the show in only seven days and bought out O’Brien’s contract for $32,500.

Seriously, what does Bubbles have on those people?

The C-SPAN3 show, “:-),’’ will be O’Brien’s latest comeback, after his string of comebacks across the 2010s. After “Conan’’ on TBS got knocked off for “Dane Cook’’ in 2011, O’Brien found his way back with “Conan ’n’ Abe,’’ his 5 p.m. nightly buddy-talk show on TV Land with Abe Vigoda. When TV Land abruptly replaced them with “Federline and Danza,’’ O’Brien reinvented himself once again with his hair-centric talk show for the Style Network called “Pompadour Battle Spectacular,’’ on which he welcomed the likes of Amy Winehouse and Marge Simpson. Fashion icon Snooki Polizzi, too, was a frequent guest.

He’s a resilient guy, this Conan O’Brien, and now he’s rising from the ashes again, re-re-re-bearded and ready to puppet dance, hoping to promote his C-SPAN3 show by making guest appearances on everything from CNN’s “Spitzer Blagojevich’’ to “The Daily Show With Dennis Miller.’’ But we’ve known O’Brien is a fighter since back in the day, when he was the David to Jay Leno’s Goliath.

Leno, of course, is still a fixture on the small Web-only network, formerly known as NBC.

Sure, O’Brien has down moments, the tears of a clown and all. This summer, he let a touch of anger slip through his strong veneer when he said via Twitter, “I just want to say to the kids out there: You can do anything you want in life — unless Bubbles wants to do it, too.’’ Life hasn’t been easy for the likes of O’Brien since the late-night TV era died out, driving Jimmy Fallon to “The New Let’s Make a Deal,’’ Craig Ferguson to “Fergus and Kelly,’’ and David Letterman to his afternoon slot on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Young viewers are focused on anytime viral videos; who needs to watch late-night live with ads?

This week, the O’Brien camp — i.e., O’Brien and his manager-agent-publicist-writer Andy Richter — invited the press to a preview of “:-)’’ in New York, where they’ve set up an office since Animal Planet ran them out of Omaha. In the preview clips, Conan was in peak form, his non sequiturs as absurd and his irony as spiky as ever. He’s still the snarky college kid putting invisible quote marks around everything he says — even in miniature, in his new incarnation as a face-only button on the C-SPAN3 graphic.

O’Brien’s freckly little Howdy Doody head is scrunched in amid C-SPAN3’s visual maze of charts, knobs, and tickers, telling jokes during the long periods of dead air, right there between the Dow and the weather report. He delivers his daily jokes like a tiny trooper, an orange Lilliputian with a Gulliver-size tenacity.

Conan O’Brien’s new late-night talk show, “Conan,’’ premieres tomorrow night at 11 on TBS with guests Seth Rogen and Jack White.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit