How Bad Are We Really Prepared to Feel For Conan O'Brien?
I have a hunch. Television historians around America will forevermore note Jan. 13, 2010, at around 12:14 a.m. as the precise moment that the Great Conan O'Brien Blowback against NBC finally began its fade. After all, that was when O'Brien welcomed Chuck star Zachary Levi to his Tonight Show couch, only to have his guest interrupt him with an earnest, solemn expression of support. "I know it's your show -- at least for a little while longer -- but I want to say a couple of things before the plug is officially pulled," Levi said. "Everyone at Chuck, myself, millions of people, everyone here in this audience, I think we can all agree that you are one of the funniest, one of the kindest, and one of the classiest acts to ever grace late night. [...] Wherever you go, however this shakes out, I just want you to know that I hope that we get to hang out again."
Which, as a viewer, I don't doubt or disagree with. But really. People. Let's get a hold of ourselves.
Whatever happens in the reshuffling of NBC's late-night talent, it should be noted that Conan O'Brien was not diagnosed with a terminal illness, nor is he going to prison, nor is he being deported or shot into space in one of Jeff Zucker's corrugated-tin escape pods retrofitted for O'Brien's lanky frame and towering hair. When the 46-year-old host's Tonight Show reign finally fizzles out next month, it won't even mean the end of Conan O'Brien on television.
This is clear, right? Conan O'Brien is not dying.
I'm not going to be that default contrarian who attempts to defend NBC's handling of its late-night programming and, by extension, its viewers, its hosts and their respective staffs. I kind of love the National Moment we're having at the network's expense. Coco's anger yields a wallop and a burn that comes from a very specific cultural leverage, and his monologues this week have made for fascinating TV. I sincerely hope this upheaval results in the kind of regime change that NBC needs to reinvent itself as a legitimate or even a functioning network. Moreover, I wish to see O'Brien happy and his audience, of which I consider myself a part, even happier.
And here's the "but": How bad are we really prepared to feel for this guy? Why do we feel bad in the first place? O'Brien isn't the first man to ever move house and family cross-country for a job only to realize the grass wasn't greener, nor the job even secure. (Though he is in a minority of those men whose transfers netted him a contract worth anywhere from $50 million to $80 million.) Reportedly, his deal with NBC doesn't specify the precise windows during which he'd broadcast, an unusual, network-favoring loophole for a late-night pact. O'Brien's waves of supporters may be united in their outrage and loyalty, but good luck finding a majority that says The Tonight Show actually exceeds the quality and consistency of Late Night With Conan O' Brien.
In fact, this shuffle may be the best possible scenario for O'Brien and his fans. He'll land somewhere that wants him -- somewhere without the burden of a prime-time experiment siphoning talent from his stage and morale from his crew. Somewhere he'll be welcome as the niche product he is as opposed to being penalized for it. Somewhere whose motivation is a profitable, entertaining show, and not just the mere prospect of sticking it to NBC by wedging O'Brien back into 11:35 opposite an obviously insurmountable Jay Leno and David Letterman. "My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work," O'Brien summarized in his statement Tuesday. Exactly, and fair enough.
Not as fair, though, is the entitlement complex taking shape around O'Brien's cult of personality. Its undercurrents roiled Tuesday in monologue jokes like, "Hello, my name is Conan O'Brien, and I may soon be available for children's parties," or, "When I was a little boy, I remember watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and thinking 'Someday, I'm going to host that show for seven months.'"
I laughed, I winced. Of course O'Brien earned the gig, and of course he and NBC had a deal for him to inherit it from Leno, which he did. But if affiliates show up outside 30 Rock with pitchforks, torches and threats over collapsing local news ratings from Leno's lead-in, and O'Brien's Tonight Show is getting slammed in the ratings compared to Leno's edition a year ago, what else was NBC supposed to do? This is business. Does it make it ethical? No. Does it make anyone happy? Power-politician Leno, perhaps, and most certainly Letterman. (Though, in backlash damage-control mode, Leno's already spinning his own displeasure with NBC by supposedly threatening to leave the network himself. Talk about an entitlement complex.) Was O'Brien screwed? Without a doubt.
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