Thursday, January 14, 2010

Conan O'Brien Goes Out in a Blaze of Dignity

Conan was the reason I would smuggle a TV up to my room as a kid. My parents had pretty strict rules about TV watching. It was hard enough to get time for any show, so the idea that I'd be allowed to watch something starting at 11:35 was insane. We had a tiny, old black and white set that was probably twenty years older than me. Some nights I'd plan ahead. In the afternoon when nobody was paying attention, I'd take the television from the cedar closet upstairs and hide it under a blanket in mine. Even when I'd get it hooked up I'd have to be careful...but the risk of getting in trouble was worth it. I loved Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

His sense of humor made sense to me. He was a TV star, a celebrity with a lucrative job and a national platform. But, the character he played was a loser. He poked fun at his pale skin, his goofy looks, and his show's limited budget. He was clearly charming and engaging, but willing to depict himself as a goof who couldn't get a date. His skits were simultaneously cerebral and infantile. One of my favorites was the NBC Satellite Dish, where he created 15 second clips of imaginary cable channels. Examples: Not Cool, Zeus, which featured the king of Greek Gods being inconsiderate, and the Battle for Burrito Island, starring Marlon Brando and Roseanne Barr.

His show thrived on this kind of brainy weirdness, which made me wonder whether the Tonight Show would be a good fit. I wasn't lucky enough to watch when it was the kingdom of Johnny Carson; all it had ever been to me was the program for old people. Jokes with no teeth, just a bunch of bland, inoffensive chuckles. How could Conan fit there? But, it was his dream. He'd fantasized about for his whole life: getting the chance to succeed his hero. I watched the first few episodes and was mildly disappointed. But I thought back to the infancy of Late Night, and I felt like he was too smart not to figure it out. It was a new challenge, a new audience, a new coast. Conan loves a challenge.

He turned a graveyard with a tiny budget into one of the funniest shows on TV. When NBA playoff games or the Olympics pushed his show even later, he made devastating jokes about it. He would have figured this out too, but now we'll never know. NBC was too scared, had spread itself too thin, and the truly believed this was their best option. Credit to Conan for not giving up his dream. Good for him for refusing to compromise and roll over for anybody. He will bounce back. He is too smart, too funny, and too determined to let this stop him from sharing his gift. Jokes that make so much sense to you, that you'll watch them on a 7" set and put a hand over your mouth to stop yourself from laughing.

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