Gee, conan, that joke seems familiar

Jason Zinoman

It's been a few years since Conan O'Brien left The Tonight Show and he still hasn't moved on.

In a video bit shot for his show, Conan, which just turned 2, he referred to a costume store's big-chinned devil mask as Jay Leno. The next day, Mindy Kaling, talking about her show, The Mindy Project, said that when you put your name in the title, you're harder to replace.

"That's why I did it," O'Brien said, pausing so everyone got the implication. "What an unpleasant little cul-de-sac we just wandered into."

Isn't it time to leave this dead end? While some grudges can be leveraged into explosive comedy, this one risks turning O'Brien into a darkly obsessed figure out of The Larry Sanders Show.

Certainly he went through a public ordeal in 2010 when, only seven months after replacing Leno on The Tonight Show, he was told by NBC that it would reinstall Leno in the 11:35 time slot and push Conan's Tonight Show to 12:05. O'Brien wouldn't go along with the plan and left, though with a hefty severance in hand.

But let's face it: Jokes about Leno are even more tired than Leno's jokes. And when Leno appeared on Craig Ferguson's show last week, the late-night wars settled into a tense peace. But when he moved to TBS, he was liberated from the pressure of network television. So it's been disappointing that O'Brien has produced a fairly conventional talk show—albeit with less famous guests.

That's not to say it isn't funny. No talk show on television books better comics. At its best, like an election sketch that included a voting machine come alive and a table of chattering pundits that rolled on and offstage, the show achieves a deliriously silly momentum.

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