At Chicago Theatre, Conan banters with mayor, watches a sausage fly
By Mike Thomas Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org June 11, 2012 9:22PM
Sidekick Andy Richter (from left), guest Rahm Emanuel and host Conan O'Brien on an episode of the TBS show "Conan" taped at the Chicago Theatre on June 11, 2012.
Updated: July 13, 2012 6:27AM
During his first stop in Chicago since 2010 and his first television taping here since 2006, late-night jester Conan O’Brien did his world-famous string dance, tried (torturously) to step dance with the help of local experts, launched a giant sausage, wheeled out a massive bobblehead likeness of himself and in general, shook the packed Chicago Theatre to its gilded core.
He’ll repeat the process three more times between now and Thursday.
Around 3:30 p.m. Monday, Dana Morgan was among thousands of ticket holders lined up beneath and beyond the local landmark’s glitzy marquee to see the host of TBS’ “Conan” in action.
She initially tried to win tickets for her ex-boyfriend, but he dumped her a week before her seats were confirmed. “So I invited my friends,” she said. “I bet he wishes he didn’t dump me.”
Nearby, Barb Safiran stood with her husband, Ed, waiting for their two twentysomething daughters. “He seems like a real person,” Barb said of O’Brien. “I could meet him on the street and we’d just be silly together.”
The award for costume originality went to 20-year-old Columbia College student Moe Hunt. A 10-year fan of O’Brien, she showed up dressed as a female version of Coco’s superhero character the Flaming C: bright-red curly wig, silky skirt, yellow oven mitt. The whole outfit, she noted, was homemade.
“My boyfriend says he can’t even look at me [in the getup],” she said with a laugh, “because I look so much like Conan.”
Whereas the crowd outside was sedate, inside was a different story. Thousands of loyalists and friends of loyalists were already primed to burst even before comic Jimmy Pardo strolled onstage to warm them up.
When O’Brien’s darkly besuited announcer and sidekick Andy Richter — a formerly Chicago-based improviser and Columbia College grad — made his understated entrance, the room exploded.
Then O’Brien, draped in a typically impeccable double-vented suit, reared his legendary carrot-topped head. Cheers erupted of “Conan! Conan!” as onlookers leaped to their feet for a sustained and thunderous standing ovation.
Only when an appreciative O’Brien — who later remarked of the audience’s extreme enthusiasm, “All this power, wasted” — playfully pointed to his watch did the almost atavistic response diminish so the show could go on.
And it did go on, like a well-oiled machine. Which isn’t surprising, considering O’Brien is approaching his 20th year on the air. After helming “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” from 1993 to 2009 on NBC, he famously took over the venerable “Tonight Show.” When that seven-month stint ended amid a flurry of media scrutiny, he embarked on a freewheeling multi-city jaunt dubbed “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.” His debut on TBS came several months later.
In the coveted 18-34 demographic, Nielsen’s 2011-12 ratings have the cable network’s “Conan” beating a number of other late-night programs, including “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Late Show With David Letterman,” “Chelsea Lately,” “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson.”
Back onstage, before a snazzy backdrop of the city’s skyline, O’Brien launched into a litany of locally flavored jokes. Following an obligatory Cubs crack in which he congratulated Chicago for the squad’s 1908 world championship, the host announced with faux grandiosity that he’d arrived “to fill the void left by Oprah.”
He also quipped that, unlike in Los Angeles, “in Chicago you get to see real breasts. Except the biggest ones here are usually on a man.”
In a pre-taped segment, a massive motorized sausage on four wheels was rocketed — with the permission of, as O’Brien described it, just about every law enforcement agency in town — over the State Street bridge. A new thing (one hopes it’s a thing) will follow the same trajectory each night.
Oh, and that bobblehead monstrosity? A special 17-foot-tall gift from O’Brien that reflects Chicago’s “size, power and beauty.” Philadelphia has the Rocky statue, D.C. the Washington Monument. And now, we have this. Whether it will be placed somewhere prominent (perhaps where the recently but not-so-dearly departed Marilyn Monroe giantess stood along Michigan Avenue?) remains in question, though members of the public were invited to voice their preferences online.
Second City standout and “30 Rock” star Jack McBrayer was the night’s official guest, earning laughs for a story about his timing waiting tables at a restaurant called Po’ Folks in Georgia. But he got a run for his money from the unannounced guy who preceded him: Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Self-assured and playfully administering a “Chicago Citizenship Test” to O’Brien, Emanuel asked why Al Capone came to Chicago from New York. O’Brien’s reply: “To study improv.”
The “dirtiest sounding street” was, of course, Wacker.
Responding to a trivia question about who played Uncle Kelbo on the Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place,” Chicago’s own Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) emerged from the wings to deliver a one-word answer: “Me.”
Musical guest Grace Potter and the Nocturnals rocked out before O’Brien said his good-byes to more impassioned applause.
“These are my people,” Richter had declared at the show’s start.
By the end, O’Brien no doubt felt the same way.