Friday, March 12, 2010

Redhead rising: Conan O'Brien on tour

While Jay Leno takes up his old perch on NBC's “Tonight” show, Conan O’Brien, the show's former host, is picking up his act and taking it on the road. Literally. The result — a multicity comedy tour that’s likely to sell out before it even begins — is a new visibility for a late-night TV talk show host who’s about to slip the surly bonds of his time-slot, his medium and the restrictions of his noncompete contract in ways that should be unsettling to Team Leno.

"The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour," billed on the Team Coco Web site as “a night of music, comedy, hugging and the occasional awkward silence,” opens April 12 in Eugene, Ore., and meanders all over on its 30 dates, stopping in Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago, Boston and New York City, as well as other cities (and a stop at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn., on June 11). The tour ends in Atlanta in June, but new dates may be added. American Express is offering its cachet as a tour sponsor.

It’s not a matter of straight numbers of people, of course; in any apples-to-apples comparison, the audiences attending Coco’s shows will be dwarfed by the millions who watch Leno on television. But that’s the small-ball math. Sure as night follows day, the O’Brien shows performed live from April until June will contain the kernel of what shows up when he’s no longer legally prohibited from being funny on television, on O’Brien’s next late-night venture — almost certain to be on Fox, sometime this fall.

(And don’t forget the secondary revenue stream that’s probably right around the corner: the opportunity to buy the Conan tour performances on DVD, or the audio tracks from those dates as iTunes downloads — just in time for the holidays.)

O’Brien is field-testing new comedic material not in a nightclub setting but at the wider, panoramic scale of the stadium. Conan occupies a curious piece of the cultural real estate: part folk hero, part rock star, part walking cartoon, part savvy advertiser of himself. This concert-tour runup to a fresh late-night presence on TV on a new network raises the bar on everyone’s late-night act, especially Leno’s.

The old new “Tonight” show host has been game for the game: new set (heavy on the wood), new theme, new titles. But if the show’s physical look is updated, more or less, the semiotics of “Tonight” under Leno practically scream yesterday. He needs to counter that, somehow. Count on it: Sprinkled among the concertgoers at any of Conan’s 30 dates (including Universal City, Calif.) will be Leno scouts, reporting back to the boss with all the intel they can get.

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The prices for regular seats on the Conan tour aren’t cheap, about what you’d expect for a better rock concert. For the April 18 show at McCaw Hall in Seattle, prices range from $37.50 (second-tier box) to $77.50 (orchestra). For the June 1 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, tickets sell for from $44 to $84 apiece.

But that’s for “regular seats.” Some folks at digg and elsewhere in the vast, interwoven and multivaried blogosphere are a bit upset at the tiered pricing for some of the other perks available. For $250, you get the “Hot Seat” package. The “amenities” for this deal include one premium seat in the first 12 rows, exclusive tchotchkes and a “collectible laminate.”

For $500 a head you get the “Hot Sound” package: all of the above plus access to the sound check and a premium center orchestra seat in the first five rows.

And for $695 a pop, “you get it all!” : All of the above plus a front-row center orchestra seat and a meet & greet with Coco himself (photo op included).

And reports that O’Brien won’t earn a dime from the tour. TMZ says O’Brien “is doing the whole thing so he can employ his former ‘Tonight Show’ staff.

“We're told roughly 40 people have been hired to work on the production -- many of whom are ‘Tonight Show’ alums,” the Web site reported.

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On the one hand it’s easy to applaud Conan for doing the right thing by his staff, doing his best to keep them employed in the middle of a very sour economy.

But looking at it another way, it’s hard to square such efforts for his production staff when the prices for regular seats and the perk-laden special packages seek to pull so much money out of consumers working like hell to stay afloat in the middle of a very sour economy.

And nobody on Coco’s production staff drove off the NBC lot for the last time as a pauper, anyway; Conan’s full crew of about 200 people were reportedly paid $12 million in severance by NBC — averaging, a tidy $60,000 each. Some of that crew are no doubt about to work for him on the tour as well.

But for Conan loyalists, it’s no big deal. They’re already out in force ready to help O’Brien further his hold on the popular imagination. They sense what may be coming:

Someone commented at TMZ: “He's smart enough to capitalize on the goodwill that came from being a folk hero. If he had been given half the chances Leno was given when he started, he'd have done fine. I've got my tickets, and I've little doubt it will be a fun, spontaneous show that captures a great moment. Haters can stay home and watch Leno recycle material for free.”

More than Letterman would, more then Leno could, Conan O’Brien is effectively repackaging the late-night comedian as a prime-time concert attraction. In one swift move, he may be about to break more of the rules he started violating when he started out years ago.

A late-night television talk-show host building his audience, and his reputation, without actually being on late-night television. Imagine that.
Image credits: Conan poster, Coco T-shirt: O'Brien: NBC.

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