Wednesday, January 20, 2010

CooCoo for CoCo

The internet firestorm that Lenogate has created is noteworthy to me insofar as it's the first thing that has fired up youth culture since that Obama guy decided he was gonna run for President. O'Brien doesn't merely have supporters, he has partisans, and Leno doesn't have detractors, he has mortal enemies who hate his fucking guts. It's the McCain/Obama dichotomy all over again; the hip, youth centric voice of tomorrow versus the older, decidedly un-hip codger who seems to be out of a different era. And they're both going head-to-head in a battle to claim the highest office in the Television land; the house that Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson built. Only there's no election, as TV Land is a totalitarian state.

But just look at this "I'm with CoCo" picture, which I find frankly disturbing, and which (not incidentally, I'm sure) resembles the iconic Obama image:

Now, I happen to like O'Brien much more than I like Leno (or Obama, for that matter), but I simply can't get too fired up about this little Late Night fiasco. Frankly, I don't think the time slot suited O'Brien too well. I watched his very first Tonight Show way back in the summer and couldn't help but feel like it wasn't the same O'Brien that I'd been watching all the years prior. Maybe I'd just grown fond of having him in New York, but there was also a kind of anarchy to The Late Show show where, even though obviously everything was scripted, the proceeds felt loose and relaxed. You felt like anything could happen because O'Brien himself was such a burst of spontaneous energy. His Tonight Show, by comparison, felt neutered and safe. The wild, unpredictable energy that I'd always loved about O'Brien was simply absent. And if I had to take a wild stab as to why his show failed, it would be because Conan wasn't Conan enough for the Late Show fans, and the people who'd grown attached to Jay Leno for the 20 or so years that he'd been doing The Tonight Show were put off by the nerdy, quirky, Harvard educated host that had replaced him. For example, O'Brien's mantra when he began preparing his version of The Tonight Show was "What Would Tati Do?" --- Jacques muthafuckin' Tati. Do you think the people who tuned in to watch Leno's middlebrow (to be diplomatic) humor over the years have even the faintest idea who in the hell Jacques Tati is? I suggest that his show is being canned not because NBC is ignoring the will of the people (and they are a private company who has no obligation to the will of the people, anyway), I suggest that it's being canceled because it wasn't very good and failed to find an audience. No great conspiracy.

But I can't help but be amused by this internet campaign and the passionate defense of O'Brien this has brought about. I just want to suggest to all the people signing internet petitions, threatening to picket outside NBC studios, and boycotting NBC networks that this whole ugly situation could have been easily avoided if you'd only watched the show in the first place. If Conan was pulling in the kind of ratings he is now this wouldn't be an issue. Most all of these Conan partisans are people who never bothered to watch his Tonight Show before this week. Yes, kicking O'Brien off the show before it even had a chance to find an audience is Busch League, and putting Leno on in front of him didn't exactly help, but wasn't it also Busch League to kick Leno off his show when it was in first place, strictly to hold on to Conan? NBC took a gamble that simply did not work. O'Brien will be just fine; he will find another show with another network, and perhaps he will be allowed to be himself instead of having to live up to the standard of a (largely imagined) television legacy. And everything will be fine and dandy.

Now, may I suggest we get fired up about something worth getting fired up about, like FILM PRESERVATION?!?!?! Coming soon.


Kevin J. Olson said...

Great post, Ryan. I couldn't agree more. I've been a huge fan of Conan ever since it was evident his skits on SNL were the one's that aired ten minutes before the show ended; skits that were designed for night owls who'll laugh at the most absurd things...or, people like me! Hehe.

Then of course his "Simpsons" career and the subsequent Late Night Show he made famous. I totally agree with you too about the lack of anarchy on his version of The Tonight Show being the reason his ratings were so bad. I think Conan's onto something when he claims that NBC didn't give him enough time to get an audience, but he should have known that going to 11:30 was going to significantly scale back his brand of irreverent, postmodern comedy.

I remember watching the first month of the show and thinking, 'my god...he's not having any kind of fun out there.' It seemed like all the energy had been sucked out of his monologue. I think he was trying to be too respectful to the legacy of Allen, Parr, and Carson.

He's been on fire this week, though, and I like that Conan thinks the whole campaign thing is ridiculous...if there's one thing that seems to come off pretty genuine on TV in regards to Conan, it's his sincerity that there are MUCH more important things going on in the world than his issues with Leno and NBC.

I can't say I'm too surprised at the ratings...part of that is NBC being an awful network, and the other part is Conan completely changing his format and trying to build an audience from scratch. rant kind of deviated form the original message of your post...which was a great post by the way. That's all I really wanted to say (caffeine before bed is a bad idea, hehe).

Adam Zanzie said...

If I were Conan, I would feel cheated out of what should have been the star-making promotion of my career. It's the Tonight Show! It only gets a new host every twenty or thirty years! Hasn't Conan basically worked for it? Now it's getting snatched away from him.

And I'm a little mad at Leno over the fact that he wants to get back on the show. He's attempting to use the "strictly business" defense. Why can't Leno do what Carson did and either retire or go to another network? Leno has already had his era in the sun. He doesn't seem to know when it's time to pass on the torch.

STILL... I honestly have not been watching either of the two shows that much, so you got me there. Btw, I didn't know Conan had a tagline inspired by Tati! That's awesome. Of course, I guess I shouldn't be surprised, since Conan seems to be acquainted with filmmakers pretty well; I remember when he had Werner Herzog on his old show, and they were talking about how Herzog made good on his promise to eat his boiled shoe in case Errol Morris finished Gates of Heaven in time.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, I don't know. I'm on Conan's side here, at least somewhat, if for no other reason than the fact that you shouldn't promise a guy something and then immediately take it away from him without giving him any chance to make it his own. Leno is really coming out of this as the bad guy, and if you ask me he should. It was his awful 10:00 show that more or less killed Conan's chances, anyway, since it made NBC a vast wasteland of nothing from 10:00 until 11:30. That was a terrible idea from NBC and now Conan is losing his show because of it.

That said, I haven't watched either show in a while, and from what I've seen of Conan in the earlier time slot, I agree that he seemed unfortunately tamed, and that the later slot, where he could be free to be more anarchic and wild, was better suited to his particular talents and comedic style. Whatever. I'm sure he'll come out of this fine, and that those who enjoy Leno's boring humor will go back to watching him until he gets old enough to retire and stare at his garages full of cars.

Ryan Kelly said...

Kevin, exactly, his humor was definitely catering to the insomniacs of the world, and I'll forever associate Late Night with my middle High School years when I couldn't sleep if you paid me. His off the wall humor so perfectly fit my early hours of the morning delirium.

And even though his version of The Tonight Show is probably the biggest departure for it in its 50-odd year history (with the exception of when it was very, very briefly a new program after Steve Allen left --- or rather was kicked off, much like Leno was), it still felt off, borderline disingenuous. I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels that way, because part of me thought I may have just missed having him here in New York and just couldn't accept L.A. Conan.

O'Brien is indeed a down to earth individual, so it doesn't surprise me that he finds this new campaign ridiculous. I would have loved to have seen his reaction the first time he saw the "I'm with Coco" image. If I had to guess, I'd say he probably feels the same way I do --- all this support is wonderful, but these people failed to support him in the one way it counts, by actually watching his show. I stopped watching it months ago, and I have no intention to start again now. Rather, I'll simply anticipate what he does next, and hope he's more like the Conan of old.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, yes it's The Tonight Show, but part of me thinks whatever 'legacy' the show had was destroyed when Leno took over, anyway. Johnny Carson wasn't exactly Fadeau but he had standards, something I'm not sure Leno has. It's amazing that Leno's humor can be at once middlebrow and completely elitist and condescending (typos in newspapers, asking stupid 'commoners' obvious questions and laughing at their stupid answers). So, again, I think this 'legacy' is a bunch of crap. It hasn't been a beacon of anything for at least 20 years, and even a talent like O'Brien couldn't make it anything but a train wreck.

But in defense of Leno this is hardly his fault. Yes, he should have taken a respectful curtain call, but he also never gave any indication whatsoever that he actually wanted to leave the show. NBC forced him out to keep O'Brien, and then they offered him a 10:00 time slot as a kind of compensation. I highly doubt he stormed into NBC's offices and demanded his old show back; I think NBC is just doing damage control. It's easy to make Leno the villain, but he's always been a company man and always will be. It's the company that's the villain.

Ryan Kelly said...

Ed, I'll always be on Conan's 'side' because he's the only late night host out there that I actually like. The Indian giving is definitely bogus, but no one ever said show business was kind. But one thing you write that I find interesting is that part of why O'Brien's show didn't have a chance is because their lineup from 10-11:30 is a 'vast wasteland' (most TV is); NBC has always aired garbage in that time slot, but Leno did manage to build a first place show at 11:30 anyway (of course, he did this by continually pandering to the lowest common denominator something O'Brien, despite the general uninspired feel of the show, never did). The real problem is that having Leno at 10:00 split the prospective audience for The Tonight Show right down the middle. If they were going to do something so insane (which I thought was insane off the bat), they should have at least allowed Conan a breather period to get his show off the ground and find an audience. Imagine if when Leno took over The Tonight Show Carson did his own talk show in the time slot immediately preceding it, and I think the exact same situation would have occurred.

Precisely, Ed, I think everyone is going to come out of this better off. Leno can cling to his hack work on a tarnished TV legacy, and O'Brien can hopefully do something truer to the kind of comic he is. He has the public on his side, now, and if he's a savvy showman he'll be able to capitalize on it. Hopefully people will actually watch whatever he does next.

Marilyn said...

People are still watching The Tonight Show? Leno was a creepy replacement from the get-go, and frankly, I'd like to see this Louella Parsons kind of throwback vanish so that we'd have some relief from the Big Entertainment PR parade.

FILM PRESERVATION! That's where all this energy ought to be going. Yes!

Craig said...

Seeing as I'm often asleep on the couch by 10 p.m., much less 11:30, I'm coming at this as an amused bystander. I also reflexively root for the underdog, so I'm in Conan's corner in that respect.

I can see the point made by James Wolcott and others that all these guys are behaving like a bunch of spoiled millionaires. Yet the dropping of pretense and finally saying what's really on their minds is (as the truth always is) both surprising and exhilarating. Plus, it spawned that great Hitler YouTube video. So, there's that.

Ryan Kelly said...

Exactly, Marilyn, the main reason I stay away from The Tonight Show is because it's nothing but advertising. Of course that's what all television is but again, The Late Show actually had personality, character, and vision; and before this NBC fiasco Conan's Tonight Show was sorely lacking in that.

Ryan Kelly said...

Craig, I'm with you on that, with the exception of some spurts of insomnia I'm generally an early-to-bed-late-to-rise sort of guy, so I am generally in bed with a movie by the time O'Brien was on, and I didn't like what he was doing with the show enough to DVR it or anything.

I don't see at all how anyone is behaving like they're spoiled, though, even Jay Leno. O'Brien was dealing with having his dream job snatched away from him the only way he knows how, through comedy. Unlike Letterman, who is bitter at NBC to this day for what happened almost two decades ago, Conan was never vitriolic. Even his nastiest digs were said with that big cheesy smile of his. And, when all was said and done, in his final moments as an NBC employee, when he could have said anything he wanted --- he thanked them for getting him started and said goodbye. Classy, as always.