The Tonight Show says a (supposedly) final goodbye to its longtime host Jay Leno tonight with Jimmy Fallon taking over the franchise February 17. This, of course, is the second time Leno has bid the show farewell. After Leno gave up the chair for Conan O’Brien in 2009, NBC replaced O’Brien with Leno 7 months into the switch. What follows is a piece I wrote as the Leno-O’Brien ordeal was unfolding in 2010.
From the very moment rumors swirled about NBC’s now completed late-night shake up, I’ve been vocal with my objections. And, as any once-high-school-newspaper-columnist-turned-forever-struggling-writer-of-fiction would do, I’ve employed social networking sites Facebook and Twitter as my soapboxes. By no means have I been the only person to do this – I’ve been asked what seems like a dozen times in the past two weeks to join some variation of an “I’m with Coco!” Facebook group. The hashtag #teamconan has become more popular on Twitter than far more serious issues like the crisis in Haiti, the health care debate, or the recent Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to fully fund political campaigns without limitation.
The outpouring of support for Conan O’Brien over Jay Leno on the Internet has been tremendous, but not surprising. For 17 years, O’Brien was the clear choice at 12:35 a.m. for millions of those with the energy and work schedule (or lack thereof) to be able to stay up past 1 a.m. on a weeknight. My first experience with Late Night with Conan O’Brien came when I was about 12 or 13. I recall listening to the monologue and laughing though I’m sure much of the humor was over my naïve, young head. But it was the banter between Conan and then sidekick Andy Richter that had me in stitches that summer. Before long, the two had me falling out of my chair with laughter. Despite not being of the show’s targeted demographic, I identified with the humor. O’Brien was my kind of humor. He made jokes I found funny. This was my guy.
Throughout high school, I watched the show on Fridays and during breaks. And in college, if I was too drunk to find the right channel, the show was conveniently re-aired the following day on Comedy Central. Loyal as I was to his brand, however, I did divulge from Late Night and sampled other options. As my interest in news and politics grew, Jon Stewart became my newsman. And not long after, Stephan Colbert was the one splitting my side. How could a developing writer in college, after all, not appreciate someone perfecting the art of satire?
Still, even if I wasn’t watching half as much as I once did, I was a fan of the show and found myself always being reminded of what made me love this guy in the first place. So, when Conan took over The Tonight Show this past June, I found myself both excited and, in a way, proud. Additionally, in the days leading up to the switch, I found myself defending O’Brien from my mother, aunts and uncles and others who held the opinion that Conan is not funny, but just “weird.”
Among my friends, there were concerns that Conan would go soft on us. After all, that’s what happened to Leno in 1992. The Tonight Show is a franchise, an institution. And by the very definition of those words, it is mainstream. Surely, the FedEx Pope and the Masturbating Bear would not be 11:35 material…
But this was 2009! The entire image of mainstream was changing. Zach Galifianakis, a comedian I’ve enjoyed for years, finally got some recognition for his talent thanks to his role in The Hangover. A senator from Illinois with a funny name whom I supported from the beginning despite understanding he had little shot of actually getting past John Edwards or Hilary Clinton was now the President of the United States. The Cheesy Gordita Crunch had secretly been permanently placed on put the Taco Bell. In short, America was finally tailoring itself to my preferences.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time. Since August I’ve been working as a college writing instructor and thus am getting up early in the morning for the first time in years. With Coco on at 11:30, he once again became the last thing I watched before falling asleep. And this is what I feel some people don’t get about this whole ordeal — O’Brien, despite being 46-years-old, has long been a symbol for my generation. We grew up together. I joined the world of full time employment just as he took over a highly respected, if merely symbolic time slot.
It’s no surprise this can be taken so personally. The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien has failed and in turn, I somehow feel I have too. What I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated about Conan, is no matter how dumb his skits were, they were creative. Sometimes they were really, dumb, sure, but it was all done with a certain irony. Anti-comedy. Metacomedy. Thus, the idea of who is replacing Conan makes this all the worse. Jay Leno is not at this point in his life a comedian. He’s funny in the way anyone in your family — anyone in America — is capable of being funny. The timing, granted, is perfect with Leno, but that doesn’t make the jokes any less obvious or lame. It’s a different kind of dumb. Dumbed down to the point where it’s pointless and inappreciable. Lowest Common Denominator 1, Cleverness 0.
You can look at a number of reasons why The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien has ended. Blame can be placed on Leno, on NBC and on Conan himself. But is there blame on us? On me? Did my generation come to the aid of one of our heroes too late? Or is it just that we’re ahead of the game and network TV has to catch up to the lifestyle of their most coveted demographic?
I could ponder these questions further, but the latest episode of 30 Rock just completely buffered for me on Hulu.