During the second installment of his new show last week, Conan O'Brien mockingly harangued Tom Hanks for saddling him with the nickname "Coco" near the start of his ill-fated stint on “The Tonight Show.”
"Finally, he'll blame something on someone other than Jay" Leno, Hanks quipped.
It was a funny line – and perhaps a telling one.
O'Brien, who returned with a new show on TBS last week nine months after losing the "Tonight Show," needs to move past constant references to the debacle for his new program to succeed.
Much of his re-energized comic persona – and popularity – undoubtedly rest in the perception of him as a victim (albeit one who left NBC with more than $30 million). But in the long run, O'Brien's old-school, pre-"Tonight Show" humor will serve him best – while constant "Tonight Show" references will get old fast.
There were promising signs last week that O'Brien understands this, even he's been a bit slow to show it. "Conan," after all, opened last Monday with him being machined-gunned by NBC executives in a scene out of "The Godfather."
By Thursday night, he largely managed to avoid overt – or at least excessively whiny – references to the controversy. The closest O’Brien came was a gag in which he was received by a welcoming committee of basic cable stars: Bruce Jenner, a wild-eyed actress playing a subject of "Hoarders" and some Alaskan King crabs, said to be straight from "Deadliest Catch."
It was a vintage O'Brien: turning the joke on himself, in a clever, good-natured self-effacing way.
The moment was among several that gave us hope for the success of "Conan," even amid a very crowded late-night landscape that includes Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Letterman and, yes, Leno.
O'Brien and sidekick Andy Richter performing their version of a generic, local 11 p.m. newscast to show viewers what they were missing (i.e. nothing) proved a highlight as did a cameo by our favorite bear, who apparently has found new work in the lottery business.
Another bit proved particularly notable: O'Brien played a snippet of a rambling speech by Kanye West – then placed a video of the rapper still gabbing in the lower left corner of the screen.
There was some irony, perhaps unintentional, in targeting the foot-in-mouth-prone West, who spent part of last week portraying himself as a victim of the "Today" show and Matt Lauer.
O'Brien is nobody's victim – and the sooner he drops jokes that play off even a hint of self-pity, the better off he and his audience will be.
The comic's much-hyped return reminded us how much his brand of cerebrally silly humor has been missed. As he starts the second week of a rare third act in the TV talk show world, O'Brien's challenge is to keep us laughing – no matter what anybody might call him.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.