The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Late Night Disgrace

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I am late in getting to this, but the Conan/Leno/NBC drama has been playing out for two weeks and finally reached its ugly conclusion. Conan O’Brien will step down as host of The Tonight Show not even seven months after taking over. His final show airs tonight.

It was clear from the get-go that NBC did not have very much confidence in Conan. Even so, the path this feud has taken has been stunning. It’s almost like being in a relationship with someone who can’t stop talking about his or her ex. Happens often enough. But then, imagine you and your partner decide to get serious and move in together, and your partner agrees, but only if you find a house right next door where the ex is living. A few months pass, and suddenly s/he announces that things aren’t working out, so s/he’s going to invite the ex to move in with both of you. What’s a guy supposed to do?

OK, dude, your hair is awesome. We get it.

So I really can’t blame Conan a lick for refusing to lie down and get pummeled by his own network. It’s probably fair to say that this will go down as the most bone-headed move in modern television history, and probably one of the most shameful programming episodes of all time. The network feared low ratings, it enacted damage control anticipating those low ratings and sure enough, the low ratings came.

In Everything Bad is Good for You — a book that approximately sixty percent of Temple University’s 26,000 current undergrad students have had to lug through, and end up loving or loathing it — Steven Johnson cites the idea of “Least Objectionable Programming,” devised by Paul Klein, the head of (wait for it) NBC in the 60s, to show how the goal for networks was to not lose viewers rather than to gain them. They feared that audiences would tune out programs that were too offensive or complex. Today, it’s supposedly different: audiences crave complexity because shows are now made for repeat viewing–through VCRs, DVRs, TiVOs and the internet.

Johnson’s general argument is that pop culture, TV included, has become more complex and intellectually engaging over the past 30 years. However, it’s obvious that this model doesn’t apply across the board. The late night talk show genre, for one thing, is very topical and tends to date easily, so repeatability doesn’t help as it does with scripted prime time dramas. Besides that, it’s designed to appeal to a more general audience than dramas, sitcoms, reality shows or most cable fare. The talk show host still has some incentive to keep people of wide interests tuned in. As Alessandra Stanley writes, in the age of fractured media, “Classic late-night shows now distinguish themselves most by not being too distinctive. However clownish, the late-night host is cool and self-contained, sending up the water-cooler follies of the day at a benevolent remove.”

One of these guys has higher approval ratings than the other. I think.

Until now, of course. Things aren’t just bad for NBC; they’re historically bad. By putting Leno in the 10pm slot five nights a week, NBC was hoping that viewers would appreciate a move to “simpler times” and the middle-of-the-road shtick that came with it. They were playing not to lose. By keeping Leno around, the network never let O’Brien find his own footing. And the current round of insults is all due to one network very publicly making a mess of itself and all but admitting that the damn Hindenberg is gonna crash sooner or later.

I grew up with Conan, looked up to him as a sharp mind of a generation, who sought to keep late night comedy fresh and riveting even as comedy expanded into newer mediums. I watched O’Brien’s inaugural week at the Tonight Show back in June and caught the occasional show after that. The jokes had their bite now and then, but it wasn’t the same. O’Brien knew his audience was different than Leno’s, and he really wanted to reach out more to the mainstream, and maybe he lost some of his comic identity in the process. (Female cannonballs? Puppies dressed as cats?! Sexy and cute, respectively, but they belonged more to institution of The Tonight Show than to Conan.)

So, in this, his final week, it’s almost thrilling to see Conan bashing the network with a fungo bat, playful but blistering in his comedic shellacking of his soon-to-be-erstwhile employer, and rolling out all the classic characters that mfNBC won’t let him take with him. The elephant in the room has become the center of the show. O’Brien, as Rolling Stone once put it about another NBC firee, is at the altar of the High Church of Not Giving a F*ck. And all of us young folks old enough to remember his Late Night heydays are reveling one more time. We may have moved on to the cable territory of Messrs. Stewart and Colbert, but Conan was here first, and we shall pay heed.

It’s Friday. You know you’ll watch tonight.

Written by cwmote

January 22, 2010 at 2:42 pm

2 Responses

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  1. well, when it was all said and done.
    I will admit, he picked the best way to end the show, especially the song.


    January 26, 2010 at 9:36 am

    • It was a little disappointing to me. I can understand why he chose to end on a more sober note; I mean, he did get handed $30 million from NBC so of course he doesn’t want to burn bridges. But I was hoping he’d roll out all the old characters one more time for good measure. The Steve Carrell cameo was nice though.


      January 26, 2010 at 12:10 pm

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