Last week was the end of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. I don’t think I need to go over the details of the departure, as everyone seems to be reporting the story continuously. I just want to offer my thoughts and explain why I believe Conan O’Brien matters.
Right from the start Conan is disarming. With his goofy hair and broad smile, the writer and host has made a career of off-the-wall humor and genuine esteem. His contributions to SNL and the Simpsons honed his wit, but it was the Late Night show where he made his greatest efforts.
I loved every episode of Late Night that I saw. It was an after school tradition for me once Comedy Central started airing the previous night’s episodes in the afternoon. Conan and his partner (I don’t think of him as a sidekick) Andy Richter were two of the funniest, and more importantly, likable people on TV. You felt that these were real people, doing something they loved and wanting nothing more than to share that with you. It was a quality that bonded me, and probably all his other fans, to Conan in a way that a hack like Jay Leno never would.
Upon taking over the Tonight Show last year, seven months ago, Conan had some difficulties. I think it was the shock of living in L.A. and attempting to grab all those midlife Leno drones who would otherwise just turn off the tube rather than watch that cranky old Letterman. So, yea a little spark was gone, a little fire that just couldn’t quite grab the embers. I wanted to love the Tonight Show as much as Late Night, but we didn’t quite click.
So then comes the terrible news about dropped ratings and nervous executives threatening time changes and cancellations. And this was about Leno’s show! Let’s remember, the trouble started when Jay was consistently in last place at 10 pm. Sure Conan was getting beat too, but not like this. No. The new Leno show was a complete and utter disaster. A failure, a bomb. It had to go. But where? You can’t just cancel Leno like that. You owe to the man. So, let’s just bump Conan (a twenty year employee at NBC by now) back to basically the same time slot he just left, so Jay could not continue to look like such a pathetic loser. The executives were so busy trying to hold Leno’s hand, they were fine with asking Conan to basically compromise on his own life long dream by moving the Tonight Show into early morning.
And then Conan did something I don’t think anyone expected.
It’s a move that surely caused the split, the leaving and ending of the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. But it was a decision that Conan had to make. And that is why we love him.
You see, America loves values. It loves sticking to your guns, standing up for yourself and what you believe is right. Unfortunately, the last decade has seen the very worst of these qualities. But Conan showed us something else. In his letter of dissemination he fought for himself, his staff (who follow this man with a samurai like dedication), and the tradition of the Tonight Show. It’s not often we get to see this.
And though the last week of his show displayed a lot of hostility for the network, from Tarantino’s revenge movie idea to Adam Sandler’s “you can’t say that on NBC” acronym to Robin Williams just all out giving it the finger, Conan ended things in his trademark style, with humility and humanity. His closing speech and especially his advice against cynicism of all things was some of the best TV you’re going to see all year. Through this personal ordeal, I just want to say that Conan has also acknowledged the relative triviality of his situation in the context of real crisis, such as in Haiti. The man is simply a class act all the way.
So why does Conan matter? He very much embodied a hero in the last month. In a time when the little guy is getting kicked around a lot, Conan stood strong. He sacrificed a lot to keep, for him, a relatively sacred tradition alive and well. And he lost his job. Just about everyone can relate to that. In doing so, he became one of us, a real person, just like his old self again. And through all of this, he was able to do what so many of us want to be able to do, he had fun.
You know what? Conan’s going to be ok. He went from simply Tonight Show host to the most sympathetic and equally popular man in America. I would seriously advise Leno NOT to go back to the Tonight Show, he’s going to be facing an uphill battle for every fucking chuckle. I will be one of many who plan on officially boycotting the show in Conan’s honor. I can’t wait to see Conan back somewhere on TV or even somewhere else. I go where Coco goes.