24 February 2009

Late Night with Conan O'Brien (1993-2009)

In the hubbub of last week, as the film community geared up for the Oscars, I failed to pause and say goodbye to one of the television staples of my adolescence and young adulthood. After fifteen-and-a-half years, Conan O'Brien signed off at Late Night, where he hopped and spun and jumped and yelled gibberish and ran and attacked the camera weeknights at 12:30 a.m. In college, my roommate and I had the best nighttime lineup two dry-witted, satire-loving, pop-culture-consuming cynics could hope for: Jon Stewart at 11, Dave Letterman at 11:30, Conan O'Brien at 12:30. By 1:30 a.m., fully put down in a hazy stupor, it was lights off.

It was somehow fitting it was these three men — New Yorkers, dead-panners, re-inventors, trailblazers all — could come sequentially. Their career paths have overlapped considerably: When Letterman left Late Night in 1993, after yucking it up with watermelons thrown from rooftops and stupid pet tricks galore, both Stewart and O'Brien were considered as replacements (and both continually give reverence to Dave whenever possible); then when O'Brien was announced as the new host of The Tonight Show (which Letterman never got), Stewart was bandied as a possible replacement for O'Brien. Their paths crossed numerous times, and sometimes in my mind their gags and jokes would become misidentified. But there they always were: the political eviscerator, the self-deprecating boomer, the frantic fool.

When it was announced in 2004 that O'Brien would join the The Tonight Show after Jay Leno's retirement, it was never a concern of mine that they would be a bad match. I'd watch O'Brien do a morning show, an afternoon show, a radio show, whatever — the success of a host-oriented program is based more in the personality of the host than anything else, otherwise Letterman, whose Top Ten Lists ceased to be funny more than a decade ago, would have fallen off the radar by now. What disappointed in the moment was that an O'Brien move would be the dissolution of the Stewart-Letterman-O'Brien trinity, which had already begun falling apart when Comedy Central debuted the genius Stephen Colbert in his own show at 11:30, and that became a more frequent destination for me than Letterman.

It's said that O'Brien's humor appeals to a younger demographic, but I'd venture a guess that the youth of his audience had more to do with his time-slot than any inherent comedy stylings. O'Brien, after all, was a Harvard graduate, a veteran of the Harvard Lampoon satire magazine, and a former writer for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live — nothing, I'd say, that immediately disqualifies him from being able to induce chuckling in a boomer. It was easier in college to watch O'Brien knowing I didn't have to wake up until 10:30 in the morning; once I entered the workforce (but before the introduction of DVR), it became substantially more difficult to watch him.

Still, it would be naive to discount how a specific time-slot and the evolution of humor possess a symbiotic relationship. Comedy tailors itself, whether consciously or unconsciously, to its audience, and an audience seeks out, whether consciously or unconsciously, a specific brand of comedy. After nearly sixteen years in the Late Night hour (where Letterman had previously flourished before making a big move to opposite The Tonight Show), it's difficult not to think of Conan's audience as a certain demographic and Conan's humor as a particular brand, but it would be equally naive to think that an entertainer can't evolve to the conditions around himself and not change the core of his being. I have faith in him based solely on his intelligence, which during the run of Late Night skewed his show to riskier recurring (and some might say more ridiculous skits, such as If They Mated, The Walker Texas Ranger Lever, the talking lips screens, and The Year 2000, which continued long after the new millennium began. Who else could hone in on the irony in a person's image and exploit it to such great laughs, as in Apple-Picking with Mr. T? Who else would broadcast a rerun of a show but done entirely in claymation?

Letterman's stint as Late Night host, before being dissed by NBC for The Tonight Show, holds a place in the hearts of many in the generation immediately preceding mine. Time magazine's list of the 100 greatest televisions in the history of the blinking-tubes-in-a-box includes Late Night with David Letterman (at 12:30) but not The Late Show with Daivd Letterman (at 11:30). Why? "Letterman at his best gives you the feeling of being lucky enough to watch him play with this awesome toy he's been given." That's how I feel with Conan; his Late Night means to me what Letterman's Late Night meant to others. But it strikes me as if Conan, plucked from obscurity when Lorne Michaels pushed heavily for him to take over Late Night, will always be a boy with an awesome toy, and yes, The Tonight Show will be different, but in as long as I've been actively watching television, I've never liked The Tonight Show. His transition into host comes at the right time for me, as I transition.

It's strange how that happens, how our everyday and individual lives can become connected to the world and charted through certain technologies. Perhaps it's a strange way to think of it, but O'Brien leaving Late Night informs me more on the subject of my age than it does anything else. Individuals and societies can trace their growth through their art (in this case, late night comedy), which must reinvent and rearrange itself regularly to stay alive. Something that was always a mainstay for my college years — Stewart, Letterman, then O'Brien, in that order, Mondays through Thursdays — isn't anymore. More than my own new jobs, my wonderful marriage, my relocation and a jumbling of where I call home, more than anything, it's when something that was always there, something you took for granted, begins to unravel that you realize the past is really in the past. It was fun while it lasted, but who's to say new fun isn't around the next corner?


Joseph "Jon" Lanthier 24 February, 2009  

A moving elegy to the Irishman's late night slot, TS. I must admit I got a bit misty eyed towards the end, because like you, I could more or less track my voyage into maturity by my relationship to late night television (not that I think watching it is necessarily puerile, just that it becomes rather difficult to do so after one leaves college, for the reasons you've named). I spent many, many nights watching Conan with my father when I was attending the local JC, before shuffling off to Berkeley and turning my back on that 1:00am bacchanalian humor way of life. I think in many ways Conan was THE postmodern late night host, even more so than Letterman; Letterman proved that you didn't always have to be cordial to guests, but O'Brien's humor often sprung from taking a good hard look at his own presumed failure (one of the biggest laughs I ever got on the show was when, after some godawful skit, Conan turned to the audience with a mock-disgusted look on his face and said something to the effect of "it's not HBO folks, it's FREE!").

Let's not also forget: despite his performerly instincts, Conan was a writer first and foremost. I think that says a lot.

PS: fans of Conan owe it to themselves to check out the work of another Harvard Lampoon/Simpsons alum, George Meyer (who once upon a time wrote for Letterman). He doesn't have a show, aside from the Simpsons, but he put out a few uproarious Lampoon-branded books, like the "Big Book of College Humor".

Farzan 25 February, 2009  

I will miss Conan at that spot, but Im happy hes taking over Leno's position. If their was one man on Eart that I thought was a good replacement for Leno, its Conan. The man is simply funny and knows how to do his thing.

Daniel Getahun 25 February, 2009  

Very nice write-up here. i did make a point to watch the last show the other night, and was surprised at how seriously emotional O'Brien was. I'm looking forward to the new gig, though. And that old-time baseball bit was hilarious - I hadn't seen it before.

Sam Juliano,  06 March, 2009  

I had trouble entering a comment here yesterday T.S.

We have named you as a Dardo winner at Wonders in the Dark. I wish I knew more about Conan O'Brien, so I could offer a meaningful comment, but that's my wife's terrain.

In any case it's a stirring testimonial.

MovieMan0283 08 March, 2009  

An excellent write-up - one of your best. I wish I'd watched the Conan farewell the other night; I didn't even know it was on (another sign perhaps of my slow but inevitable drift from pop culture, like that astronaut in 2001).

However, I suppose the fondness or lack thereof with which we regard late-night television, or perhaps TV in general, speaks to our more general college experiences. I tend to remember late-night TV-watching less as a warm, happy memory than as a vaguely frustrating experience, suggestive of malaise, ennui, and entropy. I've almost entirely cut TV out of my life (by TV I mean TV, not movies on TV, which I have most certainly NOT cut out of my life, quite the opposite) and I must say I don't miss it.

But then again, how can you hate on the Masturbating Bear?

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