Recap: Conan in Chicago

Live comedy: always a crapshoot.

And yet, because I’m firmly on Team CoCo, now and forever, I ventured out of my grim, dark apartment to catch the second of two Chicago dates on Conan O’Brien’s live comedy tour.

Intentionally, I didn’t read anything about the shows because I wanted to be surprised. So I had no idea what to expect as I entered the Chicago Theatre for the first time since seeing a touring production of Les Miserables some eight years ago. (Red! The blood of angry men! Black! The dark of ages past!)

The first thing I noticed: that every bar in Lincoln Park must have been empty last night because every douchebag and his girlfriend ventured to the Loop to see Conan and company. Backwards hats and wine in plastic cups were the order of the day, and a goodly number of people decided it would be hilarious to yell things like “Conando!” and “Pimpbot!” at the top of their lungs, regardless of whether or not O’Brien was on stage.

Opening act Reggie Watts was…well, how do you feel about silly voices and fake English accents? Good? Then he was wonderful, poignant and hilarious!

The main act opened with a video montage showing Conan in the days following the end of the Tonight Show, in a fat Jim Morrison phase, complete with a Rocky IV-esque training montage as O’Brien shook off his malaise and prepared for his tour.

Conan then took the stage to rapturous applause along with most of his usual band (Mighty Max Weinberg being the notable exception). His opening monologue felt assured and enthusiastic, and Conan didn’t lean quite as much on self-deprecating humor as he usually does on TV. I don’t know how many of his jokes are ad-libbed, and how many are repeated night after night, but the fact that I couldn’t tell speaks well for his delivery.

Conan’s persona live was more ingratiating and less irritating than on TV, and I say that as someone who likes him on TV. He seemed looser and more relaxed, cockier and more bearded.

The rest of the evening was a blend of video clips, live skits and music; and also a combination of Conan’s Greatest Hits (The Walker, Texas Ranger lever; the Masturbating Bear) with new material.

The video clips were a consistent highlight, which shouldn’t surprise any fans of either incarnation of Conan’s talk shows. Conan played a thinly veiled version of Jeff Zucker, and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog did his own version of R.E.M.’s “Hello (your city here)” slideshow from the Green tour.

The comedy bits, many featuring Andy Richter, almost always hit the mark, and the energy level stayed high throughout the night. The musical interludes were more problematic, however.

By my count, Conan played five songs, not including a guest turn by Chicago blues “legend” Lil Ed that sent Lincoln Park’s white people streaming to the bathrooms. The first of these, a jokey turn on Elvis’s little-known live staple “Polk Salad Annie,” worked beautifully for me, but that may be because I’m probably the world’s biggest “Polk Salad Annie” fan. The rest of the songs, though, dragged at times, weren’t always as funny as they should have been, and mainly served the purpose of allowing Conan to live out his Bruce Springsteen fantasies. I’m fine with watching Conan noodle around on the guitar for a bit — his band is tight, and their segue into “Seven Nation Army” was cool — but no one paid money to hear him play straight rockabilly songs.

A couple less segments devoted to legitimate comedy instead of music would have worked wonders, but Conan still delivered a very solid evening.

Other highlights:

  • Conan wearing Eddie Murphy’s leather suit from “Raw”
  • The giant inflatable bat from Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell tour
  • An unexpectedly fun mid-set performance from Tonight Show writer and Chicago local Deon Cole

Overall rating: A-

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