Generation Conan

I'm not just on Team Conan. I am Generation Conan.

My entire middle and high school experience was viewed through the bleary eyes of a youth spent on midnight nachos and Late Night.

To me, the man was a semi-underground comedy god, communing with his young disciples of the wee hours from a tiny New York studio, and cultivating a lush oasis in a late night wasteland.

While observational humor was king in the late 90s and early 00s, Conan was the crown prince of absurdity. In lieu of social commentary, Late Night was the home of robot pimps, an insult comic dog, and predictions about the year 2000 long after the millennium had turned.

Conan also showed us that low-budget was funny, long before YouTube. The theme through the entire run of Late Night, even when the show began drawing A-list celebs, was always "it's 1 AM, nobody's watching, and this desk is held together with duct tape." Where the Tonight Show had glittering sets and high-def TVs, Conan's Late Night had puppets and press-on beards.

During the Writers Guild strike of 2007-08, when television was arguably at its crappiest, Conan was in rare form. Completely unbound by a script or a plan, the solidarity-bearded Conan (who began his career as a TV writer for SNL and The Simpsons) improvised, as he is wont to do. He clocked how long he could spin his wedding ring on the desk (40 seconds at best), flew into the studio on a zip line, and prolonged his guests' entrances with an in-studio maze to eat up air time.

16 years and 2,700 episodes of Late Night earned Conan the coveted Tonight Show, a development I was both thrilled and wary about. Tonight is a mass market product, and despite his brilliance, I always considered Conan to be somewhat niche.

I had two worries: First, that Conan would "mainstream" his comedy for a more broad appeal at 11:30; or second, that the audience nuzzled in the warm embrace of a predictable Leno would be put off by Horny Manatees and Coked-Up Werewolves.

It only took the premiere sequence of The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien - in which Coco runs across the country to L.A., only to realize he left the keys to his new studio back in New York - to assuage my second fear, and confirm that the master of absurdity was here to stay.

Unfortunately, it's not looking like he will be staying with The Tonight Show. Despite the politics and gossip that storm this NBC kerfuffle, I can't help but feel that most of America just doesn't "get" Conan.

For many casual viewers of late night comedy, unless you've got Setup > Punchline > Rim Shot, it just doesn't work.

Generation Conan grew up on a different kind of funny - the kind that now fuels programs like "Family Guy" and "The Daily Show." It's sarcasm, absurdity, over-the-topness, and a dash of depth, baked at 400 degrees and served with a side of self-deprecation.

And we can create all the Facebook groups and #TeamConan tweets we want. They won't help to boost the ratings of a Tonight Show that the rest of America just doesn't understand.

Business is business, and while I don't think that Jay Leno is very funny, I do understand the dynamics between time slots, ratings, and viewer comfort. The Tonight Show has never been "Must See TV." It's not a program that the family gathers around for ritual viewing. It's just something that's on while you're trying to fall asleep.

That doesn't mean that it hasn't (or can't) be really good. It's a comedic institution that Conan obviously reveres. And while absurdist connoisseurs have been enjoying Conan's stamp these last seven months, Joe Average may roll over in his PJs and wonder why the 7-foot host is shooting stage props at a Velcro Christmas tree.

I am sad to see Conan expelled from the world of late night television. He would have done great things with The Tonight Show. But he's too good to be down for long. It's time for Conan to invent something new, and with his clout, devoted fans, and money, the possibilities are endless.

With the success of single-camera sitcoms (30 Rock, Scrubs), semi-scripted faux-reality comedies (The Office, Modern Family), and animation mainstays (Family Guy, The Simpsons), expect Conan to tap a pet project and hit it out of the park on whatever network is smart enough to team up with him.

That, or there's always the Internets.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was great! One of your best works that i've read so far. It was very indepth and touched on just enough of the right topics. You hit the nail on the head.


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