Conan’s only major contribution to political goofery is Smigel’s (inspired) ventriloquism of politicians like George W. Bush. It’s no wonder that O’Brien’s Late Night ratings plummeted by nearly 700,000 viewers (more than 25 percent) back in 2008, when the nation glued its eyes to the campaign. It should have been an omen: His Tonight Show felt off-topic before it started.
That might not have been so deadly if the Tonight throne hadn’t distorted what made O’Brien funny. The problem is not the old saw that O’Brien’s “brand of comedy” doesn’t play at 11:35 p.m. Carson and Letterman had plenty of inspired wackiness, and Grandma and Grandpa liked them just fine. The problem is that O’Brien is really at his best as a straight man—the guy doing the horrified reaction shot when the masturbating bear runs out on stage. He’s a ringmaster rather than an emotional center of gravity.