Saturday, January 23, 2010

TV Time #2: The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien

By now, a million billion words have been written about the catastrophe that has befallen the Tonight Show, culminating in the termination of Conan O'Brien, for my money the most original comic vision to ever host the show. Last night, Conan said goodbye to the show, to NBC, and to the legions of new viewers he had gained in the past two weeks, since his job was first threatened by the forces of mediocrity and timidity. The show reached a touching climax with a gracious and hopeful speech, and concluded with a weird, silly, and ultimately joyful musical number; in many ways, the perfect finale to a series that really did end at least a decade too soon. What's really unfortunate, however, is the thought that the Tonight Show has now become culturally irrelevant.

Many have been tolling the bell for the show, not to mention the whole late night format, since the final days of Johnny Carson's run. During Jay Leno's nearly two-decade tenure, he did precious little to counter that assertion. Instead of emulating Carson's wit, charm, or spontaneity, he set his sights low and sought to reproduce only his predecessor's broad appeal. The result was tepidly amusing at best, and disposable prolefeed at its worst. Leno built a consensus majority by being unobjectionable and boring, practically encouraging his audience to fall asleep with the TV on.

Fortunately, comedy fans have had plentiful alternatives for a while. We had David Letterman, who mellowed with age but never really stopped being the bitterly sarcastic wise-ass that America fell in love with in the eighties; we had Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who gave us the sharpest political satire to ever appear on American television; and we had Conan O'Brien, the lanky goofball who delighted in the absurd, the bizarre, and the ridiculous. For as long as Jay Leno spread his slick mediocrity over the land, Conan was deliberately weird, performing elaborate physical routines and oddball shtick that turned what looked like a weakness - his height, his skin tone, his hair, his generally exceptional appearance - into classic comedy. Conan gave his fans things they didn't know they wanted, like string dances and masturbating bears, and in spite of the odds he rose from complete and utter obscurity to become a beloved television icon.

So when, seven months ago, Conan began his time at the Tonight Show, it seemed like a complete godsend. Yes, the show had grown old and mossy, its conventions utterly predictable and cliched. We knew that Conan would not be free to be as outrageous at 11:30 as he'd been at 12:30, that he could never have as much freedom as Stewart and Colbert enjoyed on cable. But we also knew that he was Conan O'Brien, and that Conan O'Brien was incapable of being anything but himself. Most of all, unlike Jay Leno, who loved nothing more than his image and his success, we knew that Conan loved the Tonight Show, and that whatever restrictions applied, he would do his show with good humor and joy.

What really pleased people like me was the thought that the Tonight Show, an important cultural institution, was finally wrested from the older crowd, and entrusted to a younger, less hidebound generation. Even if it was passé, it was ours, a piece of the old media embraced by the sensibilities of the new. Conan was no Johnny Carson, but he was the standard bearer for the kind of comedy that could restore life to Johnny's show. It was revenge for the snubbing of Letterman all those years ago, a setting to rights of past wrongs.

Well, we thought it was. Conan's initial ratings were underwhelming, and before he could establish himself and truly come into his own as the host of the Tonight Show, he was abandoned by the very network that had made him an icon. Jay Leno, who was himself severely under-performing in prime time, was given his old time slot back, and Conan was told to accept a later start, or get out of the way. He chose the latter, and what followed was one of the most satisfying, dynamic, and dangerous two weeks in the history of late night comedy. For two weeks Conan O'Brien bit the hands that fed him, lustily ripping into the reputations of his bosses. The masses roared in approval, as ratings soared, and Team Conan set the internet on fire with unyielding support for O'Brien, and undying contempt for Leno and NBC.

Of course, corporations are inflexible in their machinations, and it was obvious all along that, though we fought the good fight, the cause was lost. For all the love and support that came his way, Conan couldn't keep his show, and Jay would have it back one way or another. As odd as it may seem, many fans took it all very personally, and why not? Amateur sociologists could talk and write for ages about how Conan's plight resonated in a country where millions were unjustly without jobs, but in the end the answer was simple: people know unfairness when they see it. NBC betrayed Conan O'Brien, and showed complete disregard for the wishes of its audience. They paid for it with a thoroughly piercing public humiliation, the effects of which will reverberate for years, tarnishing the reputation of the network that gave us some of the most legendary comedies of all time.

After two weeks of standing firm skewering NBC with all of his comedic skill, Friday left Conan O'Brien only one thing to do: bow out gracefully, and leave the Tonight Show in a glorious blaze of rock n' roll. In one of the most bizarre musical collaborations I have ever seen, Conan joined Max Weinberg, Beck, Ben Harper, and Billy Gibbons in backing Will Ferrel, who sang Freebird and pounded his trademark cowbell for all it was worth. Conan took a solo, holding his own on guitar against several bona fide rock stars, and brought a brief but momentous television era to a close. It was goofy, emotional, and profoundly honest, demonstrating precisely just what it was that set Conan O'Brien apart from his peers.

And what comes next? Conan will get a new show someday, probably on Fox, and possibly as soon as September. His fans will follow him, and Team Conan will finally have some measure of satisfaction, something more than a moral, Pyrrhic victory. But the Tonight Show? The Tonight Show is dead in the water. Until September comes, a returning Leno will face off against Letterman once again, and Leno's public profile has been thoroughly trashed by virtually the entire entertainment community. Even if Leno regains his bland supremacy at 11:30 by the skin of his infamous chin, his show will be nothing more than a shadow of its former self. And by Jay Leno's standards, that's insignificant indeed.

As for myself, I'm not willing to let NBC off the hook. For as long as Jay Leno hosts the Tonight Show, NBC won't be having my business; I'm participating in a general boycott of NBC's programming. Admittedly, I won't be able to ignore the Olympics completely, but since they're projected to lose two hundred million dollars on the broadcasts anyway (thanks to the same brilliant decision makers who sealed the Tonight Show's fate), I don't have to worry too much about accidentally helping them out.

NBC, Jay Leno, know that you have earned the contempt of your audience. Good luck winning back their respect. Long live Conan O'Brien!

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