Alas, Poor Conan!

By the time you read this, there is a good chance Conan O’Brien will have vanished forever from the stage of The Tonight Show, canceled in a very public corporate meltdown after only seven months into his new gig.  Which is a shame, really, not so much because the show was any good (be fair--it wasn't), but because it brings an end to one of the most diverting sagas of entertainment chicanery in recent memory.  We can only hope that CoCo’s likely return in the fall—fortified by 30+ million dollars in mad money, extensive market research, and 8 months of bitter seething—will unleash a renewed airing of NBC’s increasingly long and ugly skid marks.  In the meantime, I look forward to O’Brien’s inevitable appearances on Letterman and Sterne for a truly bloody beat-down of the peacock.

Why have so many become invested in what is essentially a battle of pride fought among 3 multi-millionaires?  The dust-up at NBC is a train wreck of mega-fame, mega-money, and mega-humiliation, but it also speaks to the very ordinary politics of everyday life.  Every working stiff has a dog in this fight.  For example, who hasn’t been screwed by an employer at some point in life?  And how much of that perceived screwing was the result of being misunderstood or under-appreciated by a Zuckeresque idiot?   And how delicious would it be, like Leno, to have your boss admit he or she had made a profound mistake and beg you to come back and save the company?  From the Letterman perspective, finally, who wouldn’t love to have, years after a particularly nasty screwing, the opportunity for full public vindication, a chance to demonstrate to everyone that your former boss was indeed a “pinhead” and your former workplace rival a less-talented, back-stabbing, brown-nosing, kiss-ass, suck-up, sociopath?  

As far as that goes, we should all be thankful for how this entire affair has energized Letterman’s already prodigious talent for extemporaneous rambling and charmingly nasty commentary.  If you didn’t see these any of these segments last week, they are worth seeking out.  Letterman fondly remembers his own negotiations over The Tonight Show in the early 90s and recalls how Leno, “bless his heart,” eavesdropped on the meeting by hiding in a closet (“bless his heart”—some real Midwestern dagger-digging there).  In another segment, Letterman offered to host a summit on his show to resolve the issue for all the involved parties at NBC, even promising to bring out an extra “folding chair” for Carson Daly (burn!).

But beyond engaging in surrogate fisticuffs by the video water cooler, there is another layer of politics at work here as well.  In many respects, the Leno-Conan schism is a reenactment of the McCain-Obama campaign of 2008—only this time “change” most decidedly did not come to the nation and now we must all face the sobering reality that Leno's “Jay-Walking” segments will continue unimpeded and unpunished  (“Hey, here are some more idiots we found wandering around Burbank!  Hilarious!).  Suspecting that a politics of taste might be at work here, some commentators have reduced this conflict to a simplistic red state/blue state divide.  After several days of getting hammered in the court of public opinion, for example, NBC deployed Dick Ebersol to throw down some suppressive fire at Team Conan.  Ebersol—marginally famous for playing tennis and almost destroying SNL in the 1980s-- labeled O’Brien’s time at the Tonight Show an "astounding failure,” called out O’Brien as “chicken-hearted and gutless,” and noted how, on a personal level, he had repeatedly reminded Conan that "NBC hosts beginning with Johnny Carson had recognized the importance of making the show appealing first and foremost to cities in the central time zone like Chicago and Des Moines."   No doubt phoning-in this hatchet job between sets in Malibu, Ebserol only further demonstrated why the broadcast networks are the sputtering Edsels of the new media racetrack (Yes, Dick, even though Chicago has been the most important conduit in American comedy for some 40 years, it just can't handle "Masturbating Bear."  And the people of Des Moines are fine with gay marriage but Conan is just too edgy for them). 

Lost in this “hix in stix love Leno” argument is a more significant political divide, one that will no doubt come back to bite NBC in its 4th-place butt in the near future.  The Leno/Conan wars have not been fought by regional constituencies (Ma, get that fancy-talkin' college boy off the tee-vee!), but have instead revealed a generational divide, and with it, a perhaps irreconcilable antagonism between two very different schools/eras of comedy. In this respect, putting Leno back in charge of The Tonight Show might stop the immediate hemoraging in the ratings by bringing the 40/50+ audience back to the set.  But, like the cornpone music palaces of Branson, this success will only last until his audience begins drifting into senility or dying in fiery Rascal explosions.

You might think NBC would realize this based on the public response to their shenanigans.  Media saavy and extremely invested in the politics of cultural production (either as producers or literate consumers), Conan's younger audience has been relentless and very successful in framing NBC as the villain (Leno made a few feeble attempts to act like he was also getting a raw deal from NBC—but as everyone recognizes Jay is getting back exactly what he never wanted to give up, he has gradually abandoned this strategy). 

If Leno is so damn popular, you might ask, where are the legions of fans coming to his defense, demanding he be reinstalled in his rightful place on the Late Night throne?  That’s just it:  Leno has no “fans,” he’s just much better at attracting a general viewership—the kind who (perhaps quite sensibly) treat television as just another utility in the home.  Leno's typically older and less "hip" viewers have no real investment one way or another in identifying with the victory/defeat of various performers, franchises, and aesthetics.  They just think Jay is funnier because they get his jokes and the “new guy” seems really nervous and uncomfortable all the time.  Replacing Leno with Conan was like being forced to install a low-flow toilet, but now that Jay's back, they can flush again without ironic self-examination. 

Actually, those who would pit “middle America” against the coasts in this flap are not entirely wrong.  There is a remnant of a geographical/ideological conflict at work in the Leno/Conan dispute—only it doesn’t really involve “middle America” at all.  Rather, it is a conflict between the coasts themselves, or more accurately, between Hollywood and the Big Apple as the symbolic centers of two very different relationships to the entertainment industry.  And once again, Letterman looms large in this history.

Although it may seem hard for many to believe now, Leno and Letterman were regarded as somewhat equivalent peers in the late ‘70s--young comedians with unique new approaches to comedy who were gradually working their way into the industry’s mainstream.  But their paths quickly diverged.  Leno continued honing a rather toothless but technically perfect form of observational humor, an echo of George Carlin evacuated of any political edge and reduced to easily relatable tales of everyday incredulity and aggravation—(yet without the inflection of detached irony/Jewish pessimism that would propel Seinfeld to stardom in the ‘90s).  Letterman, on the other hand, collided the Newhart tradition of Midwestern understatement with the emerging wave of “anti-comedy” proliferating in the mid-70s.  When Andy Kaufmann got voted off SNL, for example, Letterman’s Late Show became his only national venue (until agreeing to have his “foreign man” character embalmed as Latka on Taxi).  The current wave of comic anti-performers (like Adult Swim’s “Tim and Eric”) arguably traces its origins to Chris Elliot’s early turns at dadaist ineptitude on Letterman.  Who was the most ardent champion of the fundamental, irrefutable comic genius of Beavis and Butthead?  Again, it was Letterman.

As we have all been reminded this week, Johnny Carson’s retirement resulted in Letterman losing the Tonight Show to Leno and moving to CBS.  Significantly, however, he stayed in New York City.  Since then, his already awkward relationship with the world of Hollywood puffery has only become increasingly strained (being stalked by a delusional schizophrenic and targeted by kidnappers probably didn’t help either). Dave seems to have 3 or 4 A-list stars he genuinely gets along with—the rest of the time it looks like he can’t wait for them to get off the stage. In an entertainment universe where everyone is a genius, Letterman has been a foundational architect of "snark"-- willing to make enemies and hold grudges in order to uphold certain standards of intelligence and/or decorum (Cher, Oprah, Madonna, Cripin Glover, Richard Simmons, and now River Phoenix rank among his more famous feuds).

I sang Letterman's praises a few weeks ago when rumors circulated CBS might fire him for his recent "sex scandal"--leaving us with only Conan's Tonight Show at 11:30.  But that wasn't a slam against O'Brien--just a recognition that CoCo in Burbank was NOT working.  Something was just off.  For one thing, the space was way too big for his persona—indeed, the stage seemed to swallow him as he entered each night.  Like the House of Jay, Conan’s set looked more like a tacky furniture showroom than a TV studio.  And as in his earliest days in front of the camera, there was the distraction of having a side-kick (Andy Richter) who can think faster on his feet than the host.

What O'Brien DID excel at was transitioning NBC's Late Show from the era of Letterman's boomer disaffection to the default irony of Gen-X-er's living in a world of the perpetually underwhelming. 
Like Letterman, his persona is one of awkward incompetence coupled with the hard truth that most of the movies, tv, and music we consume is crap…pure, unadulterated crap that makes everyone stupider day by day. That's a tough vein to mine when you've been moved from 30-Rock to the Universal City Walk.  You can't be the edgy, outsider, amateur rule-breaker when you are now expected to be THE MAN.  To have that relationship with Hollywood, you can’t be of Hollywood.  If Fox does sign him to a contract, all parties would be well advised to take the show back east.

And this is where you have to hand it to Leno. He can laugh heartily and sincerely as rich celebrities tell tone-deaf anecdotes about the inconvenience of having a car accidentally towed from Rodeo Drive.  He can show up to work every day, year after year, to read stupid typos from po-dunk newspapers without slitting his wrists.  He can pretend the world sure is a mixed up, crazy place every night in his monologue, and then sit down and listen with apparently sincere interest as a celebutard-turned-"actress" describes how she prepared mentally to play a vampire cheerleader in some god-awful Si-Fi mini-series. And for that he deserves and will once again take up the mantle of The Tonight Show.  It's just incredible that NBC didn't see this coming five years ago.

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