“I am not supposed to admit this,” he said Monday as he took the stage to manic cheers at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Ore., “but ladies and gentlemen, I really missed the applause. You have no idea how shallow I am.”
And applause he got, from an adoring crowd that gave O’Brien and company more laughs than they really earned during a languidly paced 110-minute show that was consistently amusing but only occasionally riotous and sometimes flat. And any intended significance of playing the Beatles’ “Revolution” twice on the PA before the show was unfounded.
The first 20-plus minutes easily were the best, with the once and future late-night host doing stand-up and prepared bits. He took several mostly playful jabs at former employer NBC, nothing vicious or spiteful. But the newly bearded O’Brien acknowledged that there were some things he wouldn’t be allowed to say. “Lawyers are listening,” he explained. As the sellout crowd chuckled, he said under his breath, “I’m not kidding.”
There were a few gags about O’Brien not being sure what restrictions were in place for the live show. But he did trot out old NBC friends the Masturbating Bear — who was re-outfitted and transformed into the Self-Pleasuring Panda — and, on the video screen, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Andy Richter mostly hung out at stage right in sidekick mode, and guests included rock band Spoon; comic and O’Brien “Tonight Show” writer Deon Cole, who did 10 minutes of stand-up; and, in an olive-branchy nod to NBC, Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock.”
The show had a scattershot quality, like it was being made to look less scripted than it was, and the banter between O’Brien and Richter wasn’t riveting. The latter, introduced by the host as “one of the funniest people alive,” wasn’t given much to do, and when he got a few minutes of solo spotlight, his “What I’ve Learned” bit mostly tanked.
Not that the crowd minded. It was a canny move to open in a college town away from the arms-folded industry crowds of the megamedia centers. Several bits were aimed at local people and places, guaranteeing big cheers. And some of those — like the salute to Burrito Boy and its “Mexican-like fare at prices even the homeless can enjoy” — certainly translated to the nonlocals well enough.
All told, though, the comedy was hit and miss, slowing significantly during the second hour after opening with a spirited band jam and a funny taped bit about O’Brien getting the call to work again. O’Brien was comfortable onstage, doing some of his familiar wacky gesticulations and nerdy dances.
Despite the publicity motherlode of announcing his new TBS show the day the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television tour kicked off, it’s doubtful that the 32-date jaunt is much of a template for what viewers can expect come November. Let’s hope we don’t get nearly as much of O’Brien singing, though his reworked lyrics were funny. He tweaked the words to “On the Road Again,” ending with an emphatic, “Thank you, TBS, for giving me my own show again.”
While sporting a particularly loud and offbeat costume, O’Brien acknowledged that his new employers might not be used to him yet. “Right now,” he said, “the people at TBS are watching, going, ‘What the hell? He’s wearing a pink leather outfit?’ “ He also joked about his next project. “You may have heard I got a new gig,” he said to cheers. “Starting tomorrow, I’m the new manager of the Eugene Banana Republic.”Plenty of mention of TBS and NBC but not a breath about Fox. Maybe it’s just too soon to start joking about that.
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