It was a cool and drizzly night in Eugene, Ore., on April 12, but no one there will remember that. Nope, all they’ll recall is the sudden arrival of a massive warm front in the form of Conan O’Brien, and that everything felt okay in the pop-culture world again. From the moment the former host of Late Night (15 years, five months) and The Tonight Show (seven-and-a-half months) bounded out on stage at the Hult Center and the geeked-up crowd of 2,500 chanted “Conan! Conan!” it was evident that this night—the first stop on the 32-city “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On TV Tour”—would be a veritable love-in for the man called Coco. And the feeling was definitely mutual. “Oh, man—that feels so good!” O’Brien shouted above the hollers, adding: “I’m not supposed to admit this, ladies and gentlemen, but I’ve really missed the applause.”
Indeed, save for the occasional Twitter update, he’s been MIA since not-so-amicably parting ways with NBC in January. Here again, in front of an adoring audience, O’Brien, 46, seemed not bitter, but rather refreshed and raring to go. He offered a few pokes at his old employer, like when marveling about this stage show: “Believe it or not, this is the first time anyone’s ever paid to see me. They’ve paid to make me go away….” And he winked at the surprising news released earlier in the day that he’ll be launching a new talk show on TBS in November. “I’ve got a new job… I’m the new assistant manager at the Eugene Banana Republic. I’ll be in the corduroy section.” (Later, clad in an Eddie Murphy-esque ’80s leather outfit and performing his absurd half-finished song “The Girl Who Looks like Conrad Bain,” he chuckled, “You know people at TBS are watching, [saying] ‘What the hell?’”)
Billed as “a night of music, comedy, hugging, and the occasional awkward silence,” the show delivered all of that, minus the awkward silence. (Would’ve traded some of the music for more comedy—though O’Brien was clearly having a blast with his guitar, backed by a version of the Max Weinberg 7 minus Max Weinberg.) There were humorous video bits (such as O’Brien’s how-I-spent-my-unemployment opener; let’s just say a dog and peanut butter are involved). There were appearances by old friends (sidekick-turned-announcer Andy Richter helped anchor the festivities, while Triumph the Insult Comic Dog delighted on video with a gag involving poorly dubbed audio). There were celebrity guests (30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer, Spoon), and a stand-up spotlight (Tonight Show writer Deon Cole). In a nod to intellectual property law concerns, one Late Night character received a makeover (the Masturbating Bear morphed into the Self-Pleasuring Panda) while another show staple got renamed (The Walker, Texas Ranger Lever—which triggers ridiculous clips from the CBS action drama—became the Chuck Norris Rural Policeman Handle, earning some of the night’s biggest laughs). But throughout the spectacle of silliness, there was genuine glee and gratitude. “The support that I got from people just like you has meant everything to me…” gushed O’Brien. “I’ll never forget it as long I live, and I just wanted to say that.” He then launched into an altered cover of Cake’s cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” a song he said that “has had real meaning to me these last three and a half months.” Based on the emphatic embraces he received from the audience as he victory-lapped through the aisles during the encore, that seemed pretty darn accurate, if not an understatement.