Friday, January 22, 2010

I'm with Coco: The Myth of Conan O'Brien

I used to have a pretty serious case of chronic insomnia, and as a result I became something of an avid viewer of late night television. I watched Conan's show, which was my favorite,* every night for several years, until the insomnia finally subsided, after which I didn't really watch late night anymore. But ever since Conan switched over to The Tonight Show, I have made a point of watching on Hulu every once in a while. So when I say that I have a genuine affection for Conan's work, and indeed Conan himself, I'm not kidding. And I don't think anyone else who's claimed to hold a similar affection over the past couple of weeks is kidding, either. But I do think it goes beyond simple affection, that we aren't responding entirely to Conan himself, but rather to a mythic narrative, in which there are good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, predators and innocent victims.

But before we get into the whole mythic narrative thing, it would probably be useful to discuss where that original affection comes from in the first place. In many ways, it's as much a triumph of narrative as all the swirling rumors are now. The most important quality for a late night host is that of relatability. If we're going to spend five nights a week with some dude in our bedrooms, we need to like him at least a little bit. And so every good late night host develops some sort of persona that endears him to his audience. Letterman's the sarcastic wiseass. Kimmel's the frat boy. John Stewart's the frustrated liberal. Leno's basically a plugger. And Conan is your dorky friend. So when I say that I have “a genuine affection for Conan's work, and indeed Conan himself,” what I'm really saying is that I have an affection for the character of Conan O'Brien that's on my TV screen every night. How real is that? Well, as real as these things get.

The narrative surrounding the recent controversy has built off of these images and taken them in new directions. Two themes that have always been extant in the late night world but that the current situation has brought to the fore are those of generational and cultural conflicts. Letterman has come the closest to making those themes explicit, which is what should be expected given that he's the sarcastic wiseass:

The point of Letterman's clip is that the credibility of Leno's schtick is in peril. Ultimately, I think he'll come out fine because the vast majority of his audience doesn't care as much about all this behind the scenes stuff as the people on Twitter. Speaking of which, judging by Twitter and the rest of the Internets, one would think that Conan were the most popular late night host in the history of the world. So why's NBC getting rid of him? Quite simply, it's because the people on the Internet don't watch a lot of late night television. The people who find Leno and Pluggers amusing do. But of course we still want Conan to succeed and Leno to fail. It's just that most of us aren't going to end up watching The Tonight Show regardless of the outcome. But none of that matters to the narrative.

What matters to the narrative is that Conan, our dorky friend, is our representative in this field. Leno is lazy and boring and conservative and your parents in Kansas love him for reasons you just can't understand. Conan, on the other hand, does odd and interesting things and is willing to take chances and offend people from time to time. When you watch his shows, you get the sense he's at his best when he's at his least constrained, like during the writers' strike or now.** As such, it's not even his show that's the great hope for late night,*** but he himself.

And now the network, the corporation, the powers that be, of which Leno is a tool, wants to take that away from us. Which brings us to the new part of Conan's persona: unfairly fired employee. Such a persona is generally going to play well at any time because everybody loves an underdog, but it resonates especially well now because of the terrible economy. After all, if not even television stars are safe, who is?

Leno has tried to tap into this sentiment too, but has not been very successful.**** O'Brien, though, has reveled in it, thanks in large part to his brilliant press release that by now everybody who cares about the issue has already read. Perhaps the best thing about it is simply the salutation: “People of Earth.” In fitting with his already established persona, it's slightly oddball, but it's also all-encompassing and yet also personal. Who is he talking to? Who does this matter to? You, and everybody, but mostly you. Because he's one of you, a person of Earth. It is, in essence, a call to solidarity. It resonates with us because by this point we all know people who have lost their jobs, who have been wronged by faceless employers who don't seem to care about people at all, like NBC doesn't care about Conan. But we do care. So we rally and make bizarre looking art and join Facebook groups. Why? Because that's what people are supposed to do for each other.

Calling all of this mythic is not to say that the narrative we've built around this series of events is necessarily untrue or a bad thing. On the contrary, it seems to me that there really are relative good guys and bad guys here, winners and losers, predators and largely innocent victims. And it seems to me that it's really kind of nice. But, of course, narratives streamline. They exaggerate. They leave out inconvenient facts.

Like the fact that you're probably not going to watch anyway and that the internal machinations of late night television don't really matter all that much in any concrete sense. This is about a couple of rich white guys arguing over who gets to stay on NBC. Not exactly world-altering stuff. But by mythologizing it, we turn it into something that does matter. So Conan O'Brien, a 46-year-old millionaire who's been on TV for 16 years, becomes the face of youth and change and the disenfranchised. It sounds odd, almost farcical when put that way, but it really is materially true relative to the world of late night. And the narrative allows us to bring the truth from their world into ours.

*Nothing against Craig Kilbourn or anything. Except, of course, for the fact that he's Craig Kilbourn.

**Leno, by contrast, has seemed completely out of his element these past few weeks.

***Which, of course, we're never going to watch, but never mind that.

****At least, it seems that way to me. It could be playing better with his audience.

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