Late-night comic's national tour a huge draw
By LYNN ELBER
LOS ANGELES — Laughter is the goal when a comedian steps in front of an audience. Conan O'Brien is in pursuit of that and more: the next stage of his career.
The former "Tonight" host, barred from appearing on TV until September by terms of his exit deal from NBC, kicks off a nationwide tour today in Eugene, Ore., that could highlight his popularity amid negotiations for a new talk show.
Dubbed "The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour," the two-month venture will take O'Brien, his former "Tonight" band and sidekick Andy Richter to about 30 U.S. and Canadian cities.
It's virtually sold out and extra dates have been added in a handful of larger markets. Many tickets were priced at a relatively low $40, although the resale market has boosted their value to, for example, as much as $2,000 for VIP seats and face time with O'Brien in Chicago.
His tour ranked as the top-seller on StubHub when it was announced last month, "which is unheard of for a comedian," said Glenn Lehrman, spokesman for the online ticket site. The No. 1 spot usually goes to a sports event or big-arena pop concert, he said.
That makes O'Brien look like a winner — and a rock star — as he angles to return as a TV host, with Fox considered the most likely home among possibilities that also include a cable channel or a syndicated package.
"It's pretty impressive he sold out a national tour" so quickly, said Garth Ancier, a veteran TV executive who served as the first programming chief for Fox. "That says there's a fan base he's connected to, and demonstrates to Fox and anybody else his viability as a draw."
The stage shows are proof that "people will pay money to see him," said industry analyst Shari Anne Brill. "Which means he can make money for a network."
Mark Metzger, general manager for Fox affiliate KLSR-TV in Eugene, is rooting for O'Brien's success on the road. While Metzger is eager to welcome the comedian to Fox's late-night lineup, a number of other affiliates are reluctant to give up profitable sitcom reruns to make room for him.
The tour could change minds, Metzger said.
"I think it would influence the other affiliates, with him going to cities and selling out theaters," he said.
Fox, which has said it's weighing the possibility of bringing O'Brien to the network, declined comment on whether a deal might be near.
O'Brien, whose early career included writing for "The Simpsons," is trying out a new role as standup. While he has long performed monologues on TV, he didn't spend years honing a comedy club act like Jay Leno, who started on the circuit and has remained on it even during "Tonight."
A former O'Brien colleague dismisses any possibility of flop sweat.
"He's gonna kill. The people who are going to come out and see him on the road are the very small subset (of the TV audience) who are fanatics," said writer-producer Alec Berg ("Seinfeld," "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), who wrote for O'Brien during his first year as host of NBC's "Late Night," O'Brien's pre-"Tonight" job from 1993 to 2009.
Besides, Berg said, "he is, in person, face to face, phenomenally funny."
A number of O'Brien's shows are in college towns, home to the young adult crowd that he attracted to NBC and that helped rally support for "Team Coco" during his battle with the network. He'll play two nights at New York's Radio City Music Hall and at the Gibson Amphitheater in Universal City, near the studio where he spent eight months with "Tonight."
O'Brien has been milking the tour itself for laughs.
"It was either a massive 30-city tour or start helping out around the house," the pompadoured beanpole said when the gig was announced. The news release promised a "night of music, comedy, hugging and the occasional awkward silence."
He declined all interviews, and has since communicated on Twitter with postings such as this one Thursday: "4 days to my first show. Eugene Oregon Brace yourself for a towering tsunami of dry, self-deprecating humor."
A tweeted O'Brien joke that would qualify: "I'm confused by the new census form. There's no box for 'Sickly White.' "
(He's expected to avoid mocking NBC, which he did relentlessly in his final days on "Tonight," because of a non-disparagement stipulation regarding the network. O'Brien reportedly also surrendered rights to such comedy bits as Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog.)
O'Brien isn't touring for the money, said a person familiar with his plans, speaking on condition of anonymity because O'Brien's representatives had not authorized public comment.
The person noted the modest ticket prices — less than promoters recommended — and the bookings at mostly small or midsize theaters (Eugene's Hult Center for the Performing Arts holds about 2,500). O'Brien will also play a handful of large stages, such as the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
O'Brien is unlikely to be short of cash. He received a $32 million payout when he left NBC rather than move "Tonight" to midnight to make room for Leno after his failed prime-time show. O'Brien's departure allowed Leno to reclaim "Tonight," which has regained viewers lost under O'Brien.
One motive for him to hit the road is to keep his staff and crew employed — he brought them from New York to Los Angeles when he took over "Tonight" — insiders have said.