Saturday, January 23, 2010

Whither Conan?

Given that I rarely watch the late night shows (my post-prime-time viewing usually consists of Tivoed Colbert and Jonny Quest) I am rather surprised to find myself having anything to say about the current Leno/Conan flap. But upon closer inspection of my viewing history with the late night crews, I think I know why I feel drawn into the discussion.

The Tonight Show never appealed to me as a kid and when Leno took over things changed only slightly. He would occasionally have interesting, more hip musical acts (Depeche Mode, Morriessey) but it seemed an afterthought compared to Letterman’s sincere investment in indie and alternative music. Ditto for comedy. Under Carson’s regime, the old guard, the filter was the mainstream. If you wanted to rise above the brick and the bar, if you wanted a sitcom or a Vegas headlining act, you needed to get on Carson. The Tonight Show of the 70s and 80s was for comedians what getting on the cover of Rolling Stone was for a rock band. It was the golden road to almost certain long-term success. Leno, for the most part has kept with this tradition. The edgier, or what we might call the “alternative” comedy scene, is Letterman’s domain.

The tradition that Conan O’Brien held up when he took over the Tonight Show was not necessarily the Carson/Leno tradition. It was the Letterman tradition, and indeed, Conan’s long run as host of the Late Show after Letterman left for CBS, suggests that the specific taste matrix represented by Letterman/O’Brien, is very much tied to that difference of 11:30 versus 12:30. Who stays up late? It is a very different demographic at 12:30, a younger, hipper, more ironic crowd than those who “stay” with a channel after the 11:00 news to “catch” Johnny or Jay. If you are staying up late, you are doing it one purpose. The comedy, the music, and the specific tone of the late night shows is more transgressive, perhaps even punk. But the there are of course subtle difference within the transgressive mode. Letterman is more cranky, more suspicious, and seemingly more put-upon than the gregarious, anything-for-a-laugh O’Brien who seems to thrive on a kind of vaudeville kinetic pace that is at once endearing as it naïve. Letterman, for all his “just plain folks” countenance , can never be accused of being naïve. Nonetheless, both Letterman and O’Brien share a desire to “fuck shit up” within the often stultifyingly censorial confines of broadcast television. We need only cast our minds back twenty years and find Letterman using his difficult working relationship with G.E. (owner of NBC, and therefore Letterman’s boss) as fodder for comedy. This sort of meta-sketch, wherein the curtain between center stage and backstage was and remains a key trope in both Letterman’s and O’Brien’s comedy canon.

Leno is not, and never has been, edgy or hip. He is “funny” in the jovial, life-of-the-party way, and may occasionally be possessed of cheek and lasciviousness, but his public persona (belied by his cutthroat competitive nature) is that of the “nice guy.” He does not take his cue from Carson but rather Steve Allen, the first host of The Tonight Show. Despite his strange physiognomy and oft imitated vocal patterns, Leno, has established himself as a kind of “everyman,” who like Allen, seems to hail from the mythic America of the mythic American mainstream. His jokes recognize mainstream banalities and water-cooler ice breakers. His targets are classic American targets – politicians and the privileged. Usually his monologs amount to little more than “have you noticed…” or “can you believe..” observations.

I would say the worst part of O’Brien’s tenure at the Tonight Show were his monologs because they attempted to mimic Leno style observation. You could always tells that Conan was not comfortable with this aspect of the gig. He could not maintain the straight-laced, facade cool elegance and fellow-feeling. As often as not Conan would break into a jig, mug, or do his silly nipple rub. Even riding the desk seemed torturously anti-frenetic to him. The constraints on his insufferable , jack-in-the-box nature seemed monumental. But then, it wasn’t like The Late Show was all that different of a format.

Leno gets his slot back and may or may not regain the ascendancy with Letterman. Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel seem well ensconced in their late-late shift (although only Kimmel seems comfortable within the gig). Conan will land somewhere else, although in what capacity remains to be seen. $43 million is a lot of money, but it is chump chains in the rarified air of Leno and Letterman. It may or may not be enough to start a production company. It may or may not be enough to retire on. After the shock and hurt mellows, I am sure O’Brien’s native rascality and work ethic will generate a life-after. Frankly, I think that between he and Leno, O’Brien is the only one capable of doing so.

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