Conan at 2012 Just for Laughs | Comedy Review
If Andy Richter gets as much applause as Conan, "Big Red" gets angry. So quipped podcaster and Conan writer Jimmy Pardo as he warmed up the crowd for the first of four live tapings this week at the Chicago Theater. It was a sharp and pleasing show occasionally dragged down by leaden humor about our city (gangster jokes, really?!). The show was more or less a kickoff to TBS Just for Laughs, which happens now through Sunday at venues around town.
The backdrop to the set was a lively and sparkling take on our city skyline, crammed with familiar icons (Willis Tower, Hancock building, Marina City)—improperly arranged, but so be it. Andy Richter delivered the opening credits to the familiar sounds of Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band, but it was Coco himself who brought the crowd immediately to its feet in thunderous applause. He opened with obligatory jokes about the Chicago Cubs, Oprah and girthy Midwesterners followed by some smarter political barbs. One sketch celebrated our vaunted dining scene, but only to refer to familiar standbys like Ed Debevics and Lou Malnati's (however it did include an appearance from Second City alum and Conan writer Brian Stack). As a gift to the city, O'Brien ended the opening by bringing out a one ton, 17-foot Conan bobblehead.
After the first break, O'Brien took a trip to the Irish American Heritage Center, again wading in potential Chicago cliches, but it was sharp and impressive. He ad libbed effortlessly with the docent at the Center and took aim at the facility's peculiarities (it contains six bars). He also showcased marvelous physical comedy as he attempted to learn a traditional Irish jig. The segment ended with a live dance performance that was absolutely beautiful.
The audience was treated to not one, but two surprise guests during a segment in which O'Brien claimed to know Chicago well enough to become an honorary citizen. Out of the wings came Mayor Emanuel who received thunderous applause and grilled O'Brien with tough questions like: "Why did Al Capone come to Chicago?" Answer: To study improv. When O'Brien became stumped and needed a lifeline, longtime resident and iO and Second City alum Jeff Garlin came to his rescue. The crowd went wild.
A cherubic Jack McBrayer (30 Rock) was delightful and a live performance from Grace Potter and the Nocturnals made me want to revisit a band I haven't thought about in a few years, but mostly it was entertaining to get an inside glimpse at what happens during the breaks when the cameras stopped rolling—like Conan jumping around and stretching, Potter doling out hugs to her bandmates and the tech crew fussing constantly. It was fun to have Conan in Chicago. I don't think Jay Leno would be greeted quite so enthusiastically.