How did a Harvard-educated, multi-millionaire late night talk show host magically transmogrify into a guy who got laid off at the local car plant? The overreaction to Conan’s departure has been kind of astounding; as a nation, are we really that concerned about who hosts “The Tonight Show,” a television program that stopped being culturally relevant around 1986?
And let’s not forget, it’s not as if Conan was cancelled. He quit. He walked away from “The Tonight Show” because he rightly or wrongly felt that moving the show half an hour later would destroy the show’s integrity. Okay, fine. But let’s not act as if he’s leading a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter. It’s not that big a deal.
Yes Americans believe in fair play. Fair play means making a deal and sticking to it. Conan got “The Tonight Show,” and therefore he should keep it. I agree with that. But Americans also believe in capitalism, and when fair play bumps up against capitalism, capitalism usually wins. It did this time.
To my mind, there are two reasons why Leno has come across looking as bad as he has throughout the last few weeks. The first is that he seems like an opportunistic pig for agreeing to move back to 11:30. He should have packed up his funny headlines and gone home. The other reason is that Conan has been much funnier about the whole thing. His letter to the Times was funny, his monologue jokes have been funnier, and whereas Leno has come across as needy and desperate, O’Brien’s departure seems, if not exactly classy, then at least in classy’s neighborhood. Of course it’s easy to be classy-ish when you and your staff are walking away with forty million dollars.
I think the deeper reason people are so inflamed by this petty war is that Conan in his own way has come to represent the aggrieved, the injured, the wrongly terminated. I think there is a sense in this country that giant corporations are ruining everything, even late night talk shows. Something so insignificant takes on greater importance because I think on some level, “The Tonight Show” actually has become a very flawed stand-in for all the jobs lost to corporate greed, arrogance, and stupidity. We see Conan as a victim because we feel as though, like us, he wasn’t given a fair shot. If a guy like that, a guy who has everything, can be downsized and demoted, what hope do the rest of us have?
Moreover Leno is installed back in his abdicated throne. It feels like a coup, a particularly unfunny coup. And above him, all the top brass still have their jobs. Just like all the top brass in every other failed or bailed-out corporation. It feels unfair. And it makes people mad.
Sure it’s a shame it didn’t work out for Conan, the most creative talk show host since David Letterman, and I think it’s great he took a principled stand against NBC, but is this really the stuff of rallies? Is this really where we want to spend our political capital? If you have the energy to protest Conan O’Brien’s departure in Burbank, shouldn’t you maybe think about spending some time chanting outside General Motors or Goldman Sachs? Or Congress? This is the cause you want to get involved with? Instead of holding up placards with the Masturbating Bear on them, maybe donate a pint of blood. It’ll be a lot more helpful to somebody.
Conan is an unlikely hero of the working man but at this point, when heroes are far more likely to be squashed than celebrated like Norma Rae, as sad as it sounds, he might actually be the closest thing we’ve got.