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January 23, 2010

Norma Rae: The Sequel

 A lot of commenters got upset with me over my last post, in which I made the case that Conan O’Brien has become the nation’s most unlikely poster boy for the disillusioned and dispossessed, a modern day Norma Rae. At the end of the post, I took people to task for going to rallies in support of Conan, and suggested that if they want to expend their political energies on something, there are probably better causes. People made the valid point, albeit usually amended with the word “douchebag,” that just because they support Conan doesn’t mean they don’t also do worthwhile things with their time, like donate kidneys or adopt other people.

Fair enough, and they’re right. Of course the two things aren’t mutually exclusive, and I could have chosen my words more carefully. But I was attempting to express a general frustration I’ve had with the situation that I couldn’t quite articulate; after many people made the point that the rallies were meant to be satirical, though, I kind of clarified for myself the reason I’ve been feeling so frustrated.

For satire to be effective it has to be parodying something. In the case of these rallies, ultimately what they were protesting was futility. Of course they didn’t expect the rallies to change NBC’s mind, didn’t expect them to result in Conan retaining “The Tonight Show” because most people feel like protest never changes anything. Instead the end result was exactly what they expected: absurdity. It was silly street theater for the sake of silliness, which as somebody who has spent his whole career making stupid shit, I am all in favor of. But to me it spoke to something much deeper and much sadder. Consciously or not, to me what these rallies were really about was the very real powerlessness many people feel about creating change in anything. Consequently, I think what I feel frustrated about is cynicism masquerading as activism.

My argument isn’t with Conan. I said in my last post I think he’s great. Nor is it with the sincere appreciation his fans have for him. My problem is with hopelessness, of which there seems to be an abundance of lately, and which manifested itself as a rallying cry for a late night talk show host. What’s frustrating is that Conan came to represent this hopelessness when he’s somebody who is as far from hopeless as could be imagined.

Many of you said I was over-thinking this. I probably am. But it’s because I’ve been trying to figure out why people are so up in arms about something so trivial as “The Tonight Show.” Thirty years ago people could rally behind a fictional figure like Norma Rae because she represented a situation in which millions of people found themselves. Who does Conan really represent besides Conan? To me he’s an odd hero, a strangely poignant cultural figure at a time when the culture is so profoundly fucked up.

And yes, I’ll shut up now.




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I think the reason why we have strong feelings about this is because Conan represents the underdog - the one who got screwed over. And that's something we can all relate to.

We defend him because we believe there is hope for those of us who have been treated like crap all our lives.


Conan has for the last 17 years has had somewhat of a cult following, when he was getting screwed over by the big chin of the law his group of supefans came to show support, isnt that what anyone would want? they were showing that they loved him and to thank him for being one of the heroes in comedy, as a comedian I would have thought you would understand that,and to think that all these people dont care about anything else in the world in is naive, of course there is always gonna be more serious things happening in the world, but whats wrong with getting together once in a while for something silly? I love that fact that there is a community of people who are so passionate about something..and that fucking hate jay leno




i totally agree with your frustrations, and you worded it much better than i ever could have.


I think you're wrong about Conan representing hopelessness. I think, at least for me, Conan has always seemed like this genuine, good guy, who really appreciated everything that he got, and took nothing for granted - while enjoying the heck out of it all. We knew the TS was his dream and we rallied behind him because we saw it getting taken away from him and we wanted him to know we cared. There's no hopelessness in that. It's called offering moral support. -shrug-


I'm glad Conan addressed the issue of cynicism on his last show. It was well articulated by both of you. But whether or not people believe in the causes they're fighting for, at least they're fighting. At least they're making the world a little more interesting.


I think people feel powerless about their entertainment generally--a decision like NBC's about Leno's show was a slap in the face to people who like TV and get passionate about it. Jay Leno one night at week at 10: fine; Leno has his fans. But every night? It was like NBC was saying that they figured their audience would watch any old thing, even if they were cheaping out their programming and cancelling shows people actually were passionate about to make it happen.

So networks and producers of content have become more fan-literate in recent times (I think) and have tried to tap into fan culture to create and develop passionate and loyal niche audiences for their shows. By doing this, they suggest that they too care creatively about what they show. But plugging a schedule full of cheap, throwaway programming--lots of Leno, which (again, I think) is frankly insulting to its audience a lot of time time (Jaywalking? Come on), or Dateline, or whatever--reminds fans that what they're in it for is money. I don't think anyone ever forgets that TV is a business, but I think we'd all like to be able to imagine that producers of content are also interested in creating satisfying, interesting, challenging, whatever content that audiences would actually like to watch.


I really enjoyed your last post and this one as well. I think both are very insightful and I hope you never shut up. :) And yes, that emoticon was necessary goddamnit.


Well said. If any of them feel the way I do, they're actually protesting their parents, grandparents & other oldsters bad taste(They're the only people I know who actually find Leno's lame routines like headlines & Jay Walking funny).
p.s. Hey Michael Ian Black--why don't you just go ahead and suck it?


"That powerless consumers actually cared about which rich white guy gets the better time slot says volumes about American passivity and distraction at a time when our owners are openly robbing and further disenfranchising us." - Dennis Perrin

Michael, you're a funny and insightful guy, and have been your whole career. Don't apologize.


I theorize since everyone is out of work, we have more time to watch TV, especially late night. Conan is now our god.


What is so difficult to understand about fans being in an uproar about losing (even temporarily) the thing/show/person who brings them joy and laughter in a time when everything seems to have gone to shit in the world?

I was a Carson fan too. Disappointed is not even a strong enough word to describe how I felt when he handed the reins to Leno. I have been longing for Leno to leave or be replaced since the day he took over... Letterman, Rivers, Brooks, ANYONE of his guest hosts would have been better than Leno. I have NO idea how he lasted so long or how anyone would consider him an entertainer. To paraphrase Sean Connery in his response to a typically boorish Leno question; "I'd forgotten how horrible you are...". And I'll say it again; Conan replacing Leno was as anticipated and welcome as Obama replacing Bush.

I'm a Conan fan. I consider him the one sincere bright light on TV. Without him and his brand of humor, everything is a little bit darker. He's like PeeWee Herman for adults; all fun and games and color and light, and laughter. He's a multitalented, and completely original entertainer. His absence (along with his entire creative team) leaves a huge void in TV entertainment. But at the same time, I applaud his decision to not give the network what they want to the detriment of the legacy of the Tonight Show... because 12:05 is no longer "tonight".


I only saw the rallys as something fun for fans to do to show their undying support for Conan. Nothing more. However, I do agree with what you're saying. And as someone said there are more important things to worry about in this world but people tune those things out with escapism. With the world we live in we NEED some form of escapism.. and that's what Conan represents. He makes us laugh every night and brings some form of joy into our lives while we all deal with real life problems.


Love Conan, but I agree with what you're saying here. I wish we could get people to make this big of a fuss about something that actually matters, like the Supreme Court ruling a few days ago.

Oh, and you're a douchebag. (JK)

Chris T.

Mike, I was at the rally in L.A. I only participated for the reasons you stated here. I held no illusion that what I was doing was important, worth-while, or world changing. On the contrary, it was absurdity personified! I was there to be there, to participate in the facade of the down-trodden and huddled masses supporting a cause "greater" than they.

Basically, it was just a good time. I met a bunch of fun weirdos who I can only assume were there for the reasons I was. The laryngitis was worth it!


As a member of Conan's staff I find this demeaning. He was our Che Guevara and now I am left with my 1mm in severance, nothing to do. I may go adopt somebody.


You're the shit, Michael Ian Black!


Coming from a massive Conan fan, I honestly didn't see anything wrong with your last post. I see where you are coming from. But how is people rallying for Conan any different than Star Wars fans lining up for days before a movie? Or Star Trek fans getting all dressed up to go to their conventions? I just think this has to do with Conan having a lot more fans than people thought, or even Conan thought. It's really just people showing their support for a man they truly think deserves this show over a man who is obviously and complete douche. And I know you would probably argue that if Conan had so many fans then why didn't they watch his show? Trust me it baffles me too. In the end I think it is people showing their support for a man they like to go to bed with at night who got COMELETLY screwed!

Tom WB

Oh what the hell, no nudity? Thanks for the warning, ugh.


You rock Mike .. keep up the good posts.. they are all great reads


I didn't see the rallies as satire, or Conan as a Norma Rae figure. He's a popular host who was very publicly shafted, and his fans responded with very shows of love and support.

It's not really so exceptional or complicated. I think many people simply underestimated how many fans Conan has.

But I get tetchy whenever I hear someone ask where the fans were earlier. There ARE things that take priority over catching a TV show, and over the past year, folks have had to do a lot of prioritizing. Late night talk shows are nice if you work a 9-to-5, but when you're pulling second or third shift in a retail hellpit, it's a bit more difficult.


Wowwee.People said some mean shit about you in the comments.Dickheads.Anyways I understood your point better in the sequel and I see what you are saying.I'm sorry that I called you buttcheeks.

P.s I still love you

Chase Roper

First of all, TheVickMan, this was clearly a treatise - not an essay.

Secondly, MIB, how could not also mention the raw deal Conan got by being nicknamed Coco throughout this whole debacle?


Forgive me, but being a loyal Conan fan (have watched him since high school) and a follower of the "news" behind this whole TV mess, I never once read or heard anyone say that the rallies were "meant to be satirical", so I'm curious as to where you heard this and who said it. The only thing I have ever heard about the rallies from those who attended and those who organized it was that, yes, they never intended to change anyone's mind...but it was purely to show Conan and his staff/crew that there were lots of people who supported him and will support him wherever he goes/does next. I seriously don't see how anyone could have mistaken those comments and warped them into "it was meant to be satirical".

I hope that didn't come off as snarky, because I didn't mean it to be. But to me, the "rallies were meant to be satirical" thing just came totally out of left field, imho.

Tim Mata

As a big fan of Conan,I agree with you. It stinks that Conan fanboys blew up at you and missed your point entirely.

The protests were hardly satire. They were just plain protests. Silly and fun(not to mention futile) protests, perhaps. But simply protests.

You're right in pointing out how strange it is for these lazy 20-somethings to take to the streets over something as trivial as a TV show. A TV show that I liked and will miss quite a bit, but still... a TV show.

Don't let Conan's crabby fanboys get you down, Michael.

P.S. You're one of the few people who can pull off being a douchebag with being "just" a douchebag.

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