Conan at Comic-Con

Conan

Conan O’Brien killed it at Comic-Con. In the packed historic Spreckles Theater (yes, that is its real name), he delivered jokes from a huge spaceship stage bedecked with three enormous screens. They prominently displayed his face like the comedy overlord he was to a packed crowd roaring at his every silly gesture.

Over the course of his four day run at the convention, he littered the stage with gags, as well as some high-power guests. He interviewed the whole casts of both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. J-Law and the Hunger Games cast came by. And then on Sunday, he caused a sensation when he was visited by not only Peter Capaldi, the Doctor (of Doctor Who, who else?), and Michael Fassbender and the cast of X-Men: Apocalypse.

Michel Cieply in The New York Times called Conan’s episodes at the convention a refreshing “bit of old fashioned show-business.” What was refreshing, presumably, was to see a show from mainstream late night TV at this convention filled with fandom for characters and franchises built mainly out of alternative forms of media. But what was more striking, for longtime fans of Conan’s comedy, was precisely how much he has figured out how to cater to this audience, five years into hosting his TBS show.

In retrospect the transformation should have been rather obvious, given Conan’s rather self-conscious and awkward brand of humor. His antics have always been a cross between doltish cartoon clownishness and self-mocking hyper-awareness, ripe for the audience of a convention that celebrates the zany, over-the-top, and unbridled aesthetic of the comic book, and yet to that very extent remains wary of the excesses of mainstream entertainment commercialism. Appropriately, his jokes–always excessive and camp undercut with a heavy dollop of self-defeating absurdism–landed perfectly. (Perhaps his most pithy was when he introduced himself on at the beginning of his third show: “Hi, I’m Conan O’Brien. At Comic-Con I’m Spider-Man in the streets, the Flash in the sheets.”) And from the get-go he was dancing around on the stage, utterly charming to the theater with his puppety gangly body, asking them to give back some of the collectible merchandise he was handing out (because of course the show doesn’t have the largest budget).

But the breadth of the appeal in this community wasn’t by any means inevitable. Conan was the host of the Tonight Show, after all. And Conan’s comedy, as anyone who watched his surprisingly classy run on that show knows, emerges from a respect for this mainstream of broadcast TV as much as cheeky Letterman-like rebellion against it. The “character” Conan always says he plays (most recently in the last episode of this last season of David Steinberg’s Inside Comedy) is that of “someone who wants to do a talk show.” This goofy reverence is captured entirely in his signature little move: the clumsy knocking over of the mic followed with a clumsy self-reassuring smile into the camera. This is not to say that Conan ever ends up looking as slick as his idols: just that the particular zany nature of his comedy involved parodying a series of classic TV tropes that are precisely very mainstream.

The shows at Comic-Con revealed a production team hard at work on bending this classic showbiz aesthetic around to accommodate this new, unabashedly “alternative” audience. The first episode used the classic variety-show character sketches he does to bring in a missing killer whale from Sea World disguised as Yoda. The band was brought in on the nerd-dom, in a particularly great bit: an astronaut harmonica player joined them, only to have an alien burst out of his chest and play a saxophone (all of them jammed together into a commercial break). The large casts invited all onstage at once made the interviews feel more like panel discussions. Finally, there was a wonderful segment where Conan rewrote his origins story. We find out Conan survived a massive H-bomb attack—a “hilarity bomb” that made him irresistibly funny forever after. Andy reminded him the actual story was that he was a writer on The Simpsons and got the call for Late Night, but dwelling so long in the fantasy and its heroic narrative almost made this rather remarkable showbusiness story seem prosaic.

It has been a long journey for Conan after losing the Tonight Show gig. His devoted fans have been with him all the way, of course, and in a way the whole debacle over the last few years has allowed him to reconnect with them. At the same time, however, what Comic-Con made clear is that he is building a new fanbase in some of the most desired demographics out there. What he will do with that is not clear yet—one of the longtime running gags of his (featured prominently in his “Clueless Gamer” series) is that he is bored by nerds and video games. But at Comic-Con he was clearly doing more than importing an old paradigm there. Conan O’Brien has positioned himself to become the king of the fanboys and fangirls.