Who is Conan‘s Conan?: A Personal Response
November 8th, 2010
Watching Conan was a bit of a bizarre experience. Admittedly, I am not a regular viewer of Late Night, but Conan O’ Brien is probably the host that I enjoy the most, and so I was curious (if not necessarily outright excited) for him to return to the airwaves. And so I tuned into TBS for the debut of his new series, a debut which stems from a ridiculous and controversial transition at NBC, and…it was a bit weird.
It’s especially weird coming out of a period where the idea of Conan O’Brien, which is frankly what I would call myself a fan of, was all we had: with just a Twitter feed to sustain us, the mythology of Conan in the “Team Coco” era actually seemed to get a bit out of control. Once a cult favorite among younger demographics, stuck at 12:30, Conan has become a national symbol of the downtrodden despite becoming filthy rich in the process. As a result, while I am glad that Conan is back on television, I no longer have that sense that he exists as a counter to the establishment, as an odd duck who does what Leno does with a subversive edge that sets him apart.
Instead, Conan’s difference has become a commodity, and the result is a premiere which relies so heavily on recent history that it obscures what precipitated his rise to folk heroism in such a way that boils his act down to the past year of his career.
Which results in a funny hour of late night television, but one which fits more comfortably into broader public discourse than Conan’s history would suggest. The following is not a judgment of the series, impossible since it has aired only a single episode, but an effort to understand why I responded to the premiere in this way.
What we see here is not particularly different than what we might expect: Conan uses his awkwardness to his advantage, plays with his backdrop’s moon like the grown child he is, and uses every opportunity to make light of his experience at NBC. And like many people within desirable youth demographics, I laughed – often, in fact. I do not mean to suggest in the above that the show is no longer funny, or that Conan’s basic approach to humor has changed over the course of this ordeal; for those who were loving Conan on NBC, chances are they’re still going to love him on TBS.
However, as someone who generally admired Conan – largely from afar – based on his irreverent approach to his job (since I have never been one for watching late night on a regular basis), something has changed for me. In previous years (especially on Late Night) Conan seemed to be charting his own course, but this series almost feels as if it has been crowdsourced over the past six months – it is the show one would expect TBS would want him to make, rather than the show which he would make free from the restrictions of the networks. It is the manifestation of a comic persona formed by fan campaigns, and so much of the humor in the premiere seemed like jokes you could have written as soon as the TBS announcement was made. Instead of pushing any comic boundaries, or appealing to an audience which is underserved elsewhere, Conan’s material speaks directly to the mass of people who emerged to support the host whether they had actually watched his show or not (hint: they hadn’t).
The “Rigged First Guest Contest” is a fine example of this: instead of actually interviewing the curator of the Nutcracker museum, willingly turning his show over to the kind of guest that no talk show in the world would book, she literally walks on and then off the stage. The gag is fun, but you realize that it exists to empower the online audience who mounted the campaign, a way to build their hype to ensure they would tune in. I actually thought many of those online tools were strong, especially the live cam which offered a glimpse of the writers ahead of the premiere, but the payoff did nothing to extend that engagement: it paid lip service, and then moved on.
Obviously, this is the first episode, and by all accounts the NBC-related humor will be less frequent in subsequent episodes. And I am aware that I am in the minority when it comes to my response to the premiere, and that I am perhaps expecting more of late night television than is natural or healthy. However, the point of this post is not to attack Conan for making a terrible show (it was solid) or to say that this was a bad decision (people seemed to like it, so what’s there to complain about?); rather, I want to understand why I felt this way.
Why, for example, did I feel as if Conan somehow felt more neutered than when he took over the Tonight Show? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that my memories of Conan are of special occasions: of the free-wheeling days of the writers’ strike, of his celebratory farewell from Late Night, of his mix of nervousness and reverence taking over the Tonight Show, and of his absolutely unhinged series of shows which emerged after NBC announced that he would no longer be hosting that same show. I didn’t see that Conan tonight, as everything felt glossy and pre-packaged for our consumption: even the opening video package, as fun as it was to see Conan on the Mad Men set, felt blasé to me. Really, outside of locating himself on basic cable (where he gets paid “much less” and where random noises appear from the backstage Meineke shop) there is nothing to differentiate this from his week-to-week approach to the Tonight Show.
And for some this will be a comfort: it’s Conan, and he’s back on television doing the same things we loved before! I guess I would simply expect more of the pre-Tonight Show Conan; I would want his show to push boundaries, and to do more than appeal to his existing audience. This may just be a first episode, and he has time to figure out the rhythms of it all, but he had quite a lot of time to decide what he wanted his first statement to be. The fact that his first statement was not particularly dissimilar from his last statement before leaving the Tonight Show (right down to ending the episode on guitar for a live performance) but without the same sense of “sticking it to the man” seems to tell me that Conan is moving to TBS to keep doing what he was doing before this whole mess happened.
This is not a terrible thing: television is better with Conan than it is without. I just feel as if Conan’s persona has somehow lost its pre-Team Coco appeal, replaced instead by this mythological figure of late night. Perhaps only the opening hour will have this sort of celebratory atmosphere, and subsequent episodes will try for something more reminiscent of his previous work, but this is the largest audience they’re is going to get. That Conan settled for a celebration of his NBC saga, and so avoided the kinds of sketches and irreverence which used to define him, signals less a change in the series’ quality and more a change in how it perceives its audience and Conan’s place within popular culture.
And as crazy as it makes me sound, there’s something about that which just doesn’t sit right for me.
- The guests were not a huge help here: Lea Michele is not exactly the most natural talk show guest, and Seth Rogen was trying too hard to be funny to really connect. And yet, they are movie and TV stars of today who appeal to young audiences, which is why they got the slot on the first show over Conan’s favorite (and best) guest in Tom Hanks.
- I enjoy Jack White, and Conan playing guitar, so the final musical act was just a lot of fun – the one bit of the show which tapped into the fun of Conan’s run at the end of the Tonight Show. Also: Jack White needs to stop trying to bring scuzzy back.
- As always, Andy Richter is a great deal of fun: whatever people have to say about his show-killing abilities, the fact of the matter is that he is a perfect comic foil for Conan, and their rhythms were the one part of the show which fit fairly comfortably into “older times” for me.