Conan II: Hanks, yes; rest, no

"You have taken the chat-show format and blown it out of the water," Tom Hanks told Conan O'Brien tonight.

He said it with that Hanks-style tone of sarcasm. In truth, tonight's episode -- the second night of "Conan" on TBS -- was standard, old-school talk. Hanks was great; the rest was so-so.

O'Brien did venture into topical humor: Apple was selling its computer in China, he said; that offers "an exciting opportunity to sell i-pods to the very kids who make them."

But he abandoned that after three jokes and instead showed a long film in which he chats with the TBS censor. I'll be blogging about the show's first week, which continues through Thursday; here are a few of my comments, please add yours:

1) The censor film was fun, at least by late-night standards. In primetime, it would have driven people away. Back in 1993, in the debut of the primetime  "Paula Poundston Show," Paula talked to the network ratings guy; a week later, the show was cancelled.

2) In many ways, this second round was disappointing. The opening segment -- a few OK jokes and a fairly good film -- was unexceptional. The second segment, sitting around the desk with Andy Richter, was brief and unhelpful. Jack McBrayer was an OK guest.

3) In between all of that, however, was Hanks, with his dry wit. He was just there for fun, with nothing to promote; his next movie doesn't open for eight months. O'Brien reminded him that this was the guy who gave him the nickname Coco. "It's a sample of my power," Hanks deadpanned.

4) Hanks did briefly tell about the movie, in which he's out-of-work, goes to community college and has Julia Roberts as a teacher. "You can guess the rest," Hanks said. So Richter guessed: "She's a vampire?"

5) In general, it's good to have Richter there, with his sly one-liners. For now, he's the only talk-show sidekick; sometimes, that's as far as O'Brien goes in blowing the format out of the water.



Conan's first night: Mostly terrific

So there was Conan O'Brien, explaining his jump to the semi-obscure TBS. "It's not easy being on a channel without a lot of money, that the viewers have trouble finding," he said. "So that's why I left NBC."

It was the kind of joke that perfectly fit his jump. Overall, the debut of his show (11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays) was 80-percent terrific.

I'm the one person who has doubted Conan's wisdom in all this. I thought NBC treated him fairly and he should have taken the compromise -- "The Tonight Show" at 12:05 a.m. Instead, he convinced people that he was the victim; when his new show arrived tonight, the crowd was raucous.

"I have dreamed of being a basic talk-show host ever since I was 46," O'Brien dead-panned. He called this his "second annual first show," implying that he'll keep working his way down the cable world.

He won't have to move, if he keeps this up. With one exception -- Lea Michele was too hyper, making real conversation difficult -- this was an excellent debut. This first week, I'll have some comments after each show; please add yours. The opener included:

1) A terrific opening film. (If you're keeping track, it was better than the opening films for his two NBC gigs.) This included a "Godfather" take-off, a "Mad Men" take-off (complete with Jon Hamm, who will be on the show Wednesday), Larry King and Conan in a clown suit.

2) The curator of the nutcracker museum. She walked through, waved and left -- the proper amount of time, I'd say.

3) Seth Rogen as the first guest, with Conan feeding him punchlines. That meant the first 35 minutes of the show were basically all-comedy. David Letterman used to be like that, before he went to CBS and started doing so-so interviews with actresses.

4) A zestful studio band and a great music guest, Jack White. O'Brien has a solid Irish-tenor singing voice; he joined White, the former Detroiter, and the show's band (led by Jimmy Vivino), for a rousing piece.

5) A fairly funny video from Ricky Gervais.

6) The helpful presence of Andy Richter. O'Brien is the only host with a true sidekick and that helps greatly. A humbled O'Brien, for instance, showed an actual Halloween mask of his own face, with the package terming it "ex-talkshow host." Observed Richter: "It's very authentic; inside, it smells like tears."

7) And a good lead-out. George Lopez started his second season at midnight. Prior to settling into a lame film and a so-so chat with Janet Jackson, he had a terrific monolog.





Join the "Circus" on TV

This is the week when two terrific mini-series begin peaking inside colorful show-business worlds. "Moguls & Movie Stars" is from 8-9 p.m. for seven Mondays on Turner Classic Movies; "Circus" is from 9-11 p.m. for three Wednesdays on most PBS stations.

I found the "Circus" people especially interesting to talk to. Here's the story I sent to papers; if you're reading this after the first episode aired, check



As some people tell it, the circus is a
birthright. Performers trace their heritage for generations, almost
like kings and Kennedys and mafiosi.

Is that really true? Yes and no, we
learn from people in a new PBS documentary series.

“Circus” spends a season with the
Big Apple Circus. Viewers soon meet legacy performers, including:

– Christian Stoinev. “I'm a
fifth-generation performer,” he said. His mom's family runs the
biggest circus in Mexico; now he's putting his own career on hold
while he studies at Illinois State.

– Alida Wallenda-Cortes. She's
eighth-generation, in perhaps the most famous circus family.

Back in 1962, before she was born, the
Flying Wallendas fell during a high-wire pyramid in Detroit. Two
people died, one was paralyzed, four survived, including her
great-grandfather. “I remember him when he was 4 years
old,” she said. “He was holding me in one hand and a martini in
the others.”

When the pyramid was finally re-created
in 1998, she was at its front. Now she's a trapez artist in her
husband's aerial act; jobs change, but the circus is forever.

“My great-grandmother is in her '80s
and she's still involved booking acts and helping the circus people
out,” Wallenda-Cortes said. “It's something that gets into your
heart and that you have to live.”

Still, we also meet performers who
reached Big Apple with no circus background.

Marty LaSalle started gymnastics at 8;
his twin Jake taught himself to juggle at 10. They soared, then went
in opposite directions.

Now Jake, 26, works
behind-the-scenes for Big Apple, in customer relations. “This is an
incredibly colorful world,” he said. “There's inspiration,
energy, excitement.”

Marty, however, is in his
second year of medical school; the series captures his final year
with a circus. “I miss it,” he said. “I miss it all the time.”

Then there's Glen Heroy,
whose childhood included community theater, but no circus and few
breaks. “My mother was a drinker, my sister was alcoholic …. From
14 to 17, I was living alone a lot.”

Classmates called him Happy,
which he only seemed to be. “My fallback position is nice,” he

In the years after that, he
would experience divorce, homelessness and a nervous breakdown. He
would also become a clown, a job he fits.

“(It) doesn't hurt that
you look funny,” said Heroy, who – at 6-foot-1, 237 pounds –
projects warmth.

Heroy spent eight years in
the Big Apple's clown-care unit, at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
in New York. He also spent 12 years as a Santa Claus at Macy's.

Still, he had never been in
the circus. Then he crashed the Big Apple's Christmas party, in his
Santa suit. “I just sort of kicked open the door and took over the

Paul Binder, the Big Apple
co-founder, noticed. “I said, 'This guy has what it takes to do it
in the ring.'”

As “Circus” begins,
Heroy is clinging to his job. “I didn't know if I was going to make
the cut,” he said.

It's not easy. In “Circus,”
some of the key people triumph and some are dropped from the show.
Two romances bloom, one of them soon fading. Some people are
seriously injured, one is arrested after talking about how to bomb a

It's colorful, compelling,
eccentric. It's “Circus” life.

– “Circus,” PBS (check
local listings)

– 9-11 p.m. for three
Wednesdays, starting Nov. 3




"SNL" flounders again

Apparently, it doesn't suffice to have "Saturday Night Live" book a great host. The show also needs humorous material.

From the moment of Jon Hamm's lame monolog tonight, it was clear that this gifted actor was being stranded. A couple sketches were OK -- a Vincent Price horror special, a take-off on a "CHiPS"-type show; "Weekend Update" and the digital short were excellent, as usual. Mostly, however, there was weak material, with or without Hamm.

The final bit -- a nightclub duo that forever said "Or is it?" -- proved three things:

1) No matter how often you repeat a line, it doesn't turn funny.

2) Kristen Wiig doesn't have to be the only female performing. There are other women on the show. Really; we've seen the credits.

3) It's fortunate that a good episode (hosted by Jane Lynch) will be rerun next week. That gives writers two weeks to think of something humorous for Scarlett Johansson. 

Final days of this year's film festival

If you live near Lansing, Mich., you still have a few more days to catch the East Lansing Film Festival. That continues through Wednesday at the Hannah Community Center and through Thursday at Celebration Cinema; see

Please read a couple of my other blogs about the festival -- including the previous one, about filmmaking in Michigan. For now, however, I want to make sure you know which shows are left:

-- Shorts programs: There are two, at 8:30 p.m. tonight (Tuesday) and Thursday at Celebration. I'm fond of the Tuesday one, because it includes some offbeat delights. Two -- "Horn Dog" and "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger" -- are by cartoon master Bill Plympton. Then there's a non-cartoon, "Black Obs Arabesque"; it's filmed with style and gives you the rare chance to see some former quarterbacks at East Lansing High and college (Nathaniel Eyde, who came up with the idea, and his brother Matt) showing some real dance moves. There's more, including a longer cartoon (a long short, if you will), the 21-minute "The Adjustable Cosmos."

-- Show-business documentaries: There are two coming to Celebration. One is on the rock group Rush (8:30 p.m. Wednesday), the other on comedian Joan Rivers (6:30 p.m. Thursday).

-- A small feature: "The Happy Poet" (6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Celebration) may be the driest film in history. Paul Gordon wrote it, directed it and stars as a poet who wants to start a vegetarian food stand. This poet exhibits no strong feelings or emotions about anything, which is where the odd humor comes from. Much of it is way too slow, but I thought one scene -- in which he finally reads one of his poems to a potential girlfriend -- was hilarious.

-- Large features: There are three left. "North Face" (7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Hannah) is the true story of two climbers who were forced to make a dangerous Alps climb in 1936, planned by the Nazi government to prove German superiority. "The Maid" (6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Celebration) was an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film; it's in Spanish, with English sub-titles. Then there's "Spartacus," sprawling across the Hannah screen at 7 p.m. Wednesday. You could always rent it at home, but it deserves this kind of theater screening. It made history in 1958 by introducing a then-obscure director, Stanley Kubrick, and by finally busting the blacklist, refusing to hide the name of screenwriter Drumbo. This is being shown here because the crowd scenes were recorded at Michigan State University's Spartan Stadium. Ironically, two MSU alumni are currently producing a cable series based around that same Spartacus character.