Monday, January 25, 2010

"All I Ask Is One Thing... Please Do Not Be Cynical"

Conan O'Brien signed off as host of "The Tonight Show" on Friday night after seven all too brief months. I know all my friends (and anybody who'd be interested in reading what I have to say on my blog, which is even an even more forgotten internet stop than MySpace) watched it, but here's his emotional and beautiful farewell speech (before his joyous, Will Ferrell-led performance of "Freebird") which you should watch again, because it's just that good:

Thousands and thousands of words have been written about the drama surrounding Conan's involuntary resignation after less than a year in his dream job. Many things have been said about NBC's mishandling of the mess, about the fact that NBC president Jeff Zucker should be the one leaving his gig, and about Jay Leno's seemingly Machiavellian maneuverings, which have exposed the lie in his nice guy persona. But I don't want to talk about the negatives or the show biz scandal or the drama anymore... Conan advised his young fans to not be cynical, and it's advice worth taking to heart. I want to talk about why Conan O'Brien means so much to me and my generation.

Conan O'Brien, the lanky, nerdy, red-headed Irishman who somehow ended up with a talk show despite his lack of performance experience, has become the defining comedic voice of the last twenty years. Conan's resume can be used as a map to trace the most important comedic touchstones of the last two decades. O'Brien was a writer for SNL in an era that launched the careers of Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, David Spade, Dana Carvey, and Mike Myers, some of whom are still huge stars to this day. Conan wrote on The Simpsons during possibly their best season, and is credited with scripting some of the show's most beloved episodes, including the monumentally funny "Marge Vs. The Monorail." And in 1993, the brainy, Harvard educated writer was given the opportunity to take over NBC's Late Night franchise from his hero, David Letterman (when Letterman left NBC to host his own show on CBS after losing out on The Tonight Show to Jay Leno in eerily similar circumstances.) We've all know the history of Conan's show... he started out as a slightly awkward and nervous host who evolved into one of the most unique TV personalities working today. Conan built on what Letterman did with Late Night and did his own thing, developing an absurd, proudly silly, strange, cracked, yet rarely mean (and never cynical) brand of humor that my generation has grown up on. Conan himself developed into a fearless performer, an endearingly self-deprecating talk show host who never cared about looking cool and who would put himself and his show through anything to earn a laugh. Conan is also a Jedi-like student of comedy, and he's been on the cutting edge of the medium, helping to launch the careers of edgy and strange alt-comedians while helping to birth a new kind of geekdom, the "comedy nerd." He's been rewarded with celebrity guests who don't just come on his show to plug their movies and shows, but because they're clearly fans of Conan himself. Look at Will Ferrell, Alec Baldwin, and Tom Hanks when they sit on Conan's couch... they're there because they enjoy talking to him, not just because they're selling their latest projects. And there's nothing better than seeing one of his guests (or long time side-kick Andy Richter, who returned to Conan's side when he started hosting "The Tonight Show" after a seven year absence from "Late Night") make Conan himself burst out into a fit of surprised and delighted laughter.

One of the biggest fears that fans had when he moved from "Late Night" to "The Tonight Show" was whether Conan could keep his comedic voice in the more mainstream 11:35 timeslot. For a few months, Conan did struggle with hitting the right tone on the show, sometimes to disappointing results. But his show had tightened and started to find its legs in the weeks leading up to the NBC mess. And his last two weeks of shows, when he knew he was performing on borrowed time, were some of the best few hours of television I've seen in a long time. Conan, with noting to lose, got to be Conan in a way that we hadn't seen in awhile, and it was fearless, gut-bustingly funny, un-predictable, and unmissably great television.

All of this explains why hundreds of people traveled from far and wide to rally in support of Conan, braving the pouring rain to wave signs and chant his name while his dream fell apart. A good talk show host does more than entertain their audience. They come into our homes night after night, trying to make us laugh and smile no matter how dark or difficult the world around us becomes. We relate to them on a more personal level than movie stars playing characters in films and television, and the best of them become like old friends we begin to rely on. Like Johnny Carson before him, Conan has become a beloved hero that millions of young people identify with in a real and earnest way. Who would ever say that about the bland and middle of the road Jay Leno?

Letting Conan move on to another network is a short-sighted mistake that will be remembered as a huge folly on NBC's part when the history books are written about this whole mess. The Peacock is missing out on the fact the Twitter crowd doesn't watch television in the same way as previous generations. We watch our favorite shows on DVR or in clips on the internet- but these same technologies which are changing the way television is consumed are also changing the ways we communicate, and for the better. Look at how the "I'm With CoCo" image spread everywhere within days, or the way the Facebook group with the same name gained half a million fans in less than two weeks (and continues to grow.) This is a mobilized, connected, and smart generation, and Conan is directly tapped into its pulse After the amazing outpouring of support for Conan in the last few weeks, NBC must be feeling a bit shellshocked and unsure of their decision to go back to Leno. But they'll get solid ratings for a few years with the kind of audience that still watches television in the conventional (and increasingly outdated) fashion. Conan O'Brien is the comedic voice a generation who will define how television is consumed in the coming decades. NBC has bet on the past by bringing Leno back to The Tonight Show, which is appropriate in a way for a sixty year old television institution. As much as sitting behind the desk that Carson once occupied was Conan's dream job, he'll be free to do something newer when he makes his next career choice, something built for the future of television consumption instead of the past. And an entire generation of comedy nerds raised on his humor will follow him wherever he goes.

We'll miss Conan during his contractually obligated eight month hiatus from television hosting, but eagerly await his return to television. Conan's comedic voice has defined an entire generation and helped us figure out what makes us laugh, and he's done it all with consummate class... even when masturbating bears were involved.