« A Row to Myself | Main | Norma Rae: The Sequel »

January 23, 2010

Norma Rae

When did Conan O’Brien become Norma Rae? For those of you who don’t remember this 1978 film, Norma Rae stars Sally Field as a beleaguered factory worker who risks her job and everything she’s worked for in order to correct injustices in the workplace. She is everywoman, standing up to The Man to do what’s right. Not just for her, but for the millions just like her all over the country. Those oppressed masses just trying to put food on the table, the ones without health care, the ones struggling to make ends meet. The ones who just want a fair shake. Somebody had to have the courage to take on the Big Baddies running the show. In 1978, that somebody was Norma Rae. In 2010, it’s Conan O’Brien?

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.



TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Norma Rae:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Very well said.

Blake J. Graham

Well said. Thank You


Great post. Yes, I do believe that Conan's situation has resonated with so many of us because of exactly the reason you nailed on the head: "If a guy like that, a guy who has everything, can be downsized and demoted, what hope do the rest of us have?"

Rob Delaney

Well said.

Rob Delaney

Well said.


I can't tell if you are for or against COCO

The Revolutionary

Very well said. Conan is no Norma Rae, but that doesn't mean we identify with him any less. His parting words were especially touching and personal.

mary van note

I completely agree. I feel like all the hype is for ratings anyway.

I had a similar sentiment recently. More because someone wrote something disparaging about me on the internet. People that use their time and energy to criticize me?!?!? Criticize the war! Criticize Obama! I just tell jokes on stages and make stupid youtube videos. Who cares!

Dustin Daniel Ray

The rallies were a satire, they were all for fun. Nobody is even pretending they were politically motivated. Mike Mitchell who organized it is an illustrator. That is so absurd, of course there are more important rallies.


Great essay. It really encapsulates my dilemma with the whole situation. There truly are more pressing issues in the world than Conan's departure. Hell, the very night of his last show was the mega telathon for Haiti. I'm definitely outrage at Conan's ouster as we all can relate to his unfair termination. I think many Americans can relate to Conan's situation more directly, and more importantly, more comfortably than that of Haiti or our many many other domestic problems that needs public addressing at a greater scale.


i do donate blood (b-negative and the red cross loves me). i protested against the iraq war. i worked to help abortion clinics stay open as a teenager. i protest so gay folks can get chained to each other legally among many other things.

and dammit, i stood for two hours in the rain last monday for a masturbating bear.

and i'd do it all again. don't assume that everyone just came out for this, mr. black.


I personally support Conan because as an awkward translucent nerd who finds humor in everything (appropriate or not) I was so glad to find someone on TV who purports to be, himself, an awkward translucent nerd who finds humor in everything. He's all I wish I could be, but am not.

However, unlike many Conan fans, I actually have no vendetta against Jay, but against NBC.

Tyler Moliterno

I will say this, While there are many more things worth rallying behind, I think Conan has a very strong fan base, and they adore him. Its like their best friend just lost his job to someone who is old, greedy, and unfunny. They wanted to go out their and show him that there are people out there that care about him.

Also, Many of the Rallys raised money for Haiti through the American Red Cross. so even if Conan getting screwed by NBC isn't that big of a deal, at least is wasn't for nothing.

Riot Boyer

Disagree !

Moving the show back half an hour would tarnish the show and destroy Jimmy Fallons show. The 44 mill is being split between Conan and all his staff that moved out there. He was only givin 7 months on the show. I dont think conan is a Martyr , but he is def a gy who gave up his dream job in order to do what he thought was right. Gotta admire him for that. Still love ya tho Mikey


No matter what people are saying about this, Conan is getting shafted because of ratings. Seriously? Leno had 17 years to gain ratings, he didn't come out sprinting when he got the show after Carson. Conan got seven months. And that just isn't fair.


I think it's very well said also.

I think people feel connected to Conan's humor...he represents a small group of people who never fit into the norm. I never related to Leno, or even Letterman the way I have to Conan.

To me, it's a little like STELLA getting canceled and Mind of Mencia getting to stay on the air. Something that I believe is true art, true creativity is being killed for something that is transparent and bland.

I think you're right that the rallies and protests should be saved for the true issues facing the world. But, look at the outpouring of love for Haiti...we've come a long way since Katrina. I think this country is becoming more passionate in what it believes in.

I like your serious posts. I do.

CoCo NoGoGo

I personally think it's more of a generational thing than a working man thing. Conan's audience is much younger, and young people see Jay Leno as a comic for their parents. There was all this excitement of the passing of the torch. Let's not forget that even though Conan made a choice to leave, Jay Leno didn't do the gentlemanly thing he said he would do back in 2004- bow out and give Conan the show. They never would have moved the Tonight Show if they hadn't created the nightmare of Leno's new show.


It really bugs me when people take offense to what others get behind and support. If people want to support Conan then let them, why does it bother you so much. I don't buy the, "they could be doing something more productive" argument. You could also be doing something more better than writing this blog, like donating blood. To me you come off as petty and jealous that people care enough about Conan to fight when your shows seems to fizzle out and die with little to no support or care. Conan is at least hopeful and spreading a good message to people, you are jaded and sarcastic. Jaded and sarcastic is getting old.

Whitney G

I think it's wrong for you to assume that people who do things like picket late-night talk shows DON'T get involved with more important issues. Personally, I've found that people with that kind of passion, to rally behind a person in whom they believe, also exhibit passion for other causes.

So what if one of their passions is standing up for a celebrity whom they feel has been completely screwed over? That doesn't mean that's ALL they care about. That doesn't mean that they're not aware of much bigger issues around them.

Also, Conan was screwed over in the national spotlight. Don't you think people are going to talk about that, get involved in that? Does it matter who's involved? Anything this unusual, this unprecedented, unfolding on screen under such scrutiny, will certainly attract a lot of attention and passion.


I agree that there are more pressing matters in the world, but caring about those and caring about Conan are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the fan page for Conan on facebook has encouraged people to donate to Haiti several times.

I understand the point you're making, but the argument is assuming people can only care about one issue. I also think the rallying behind Conan has been lighthearted for the most part. After all, if all we focused on in life was the doom and gloom, we'd all need some anti-depressants.


I like this, and you've got a very valid point. This really is no big deal, but I think that's precisely why people will rally around something like this because it doesn't really make them look any better or worse if things don't go in their direction. Sure, people could go out and rally around Congress, but then they become totally hated by an entire group of people, depending on who they're rallying for or against. You get a group of Republicans rallying outside of congress and you end up with a whole bunch of pissed off Democrats who aren't really sure why these people are rallying, much less who they are, and even after the rally is over, both parties are still totally pissed off at the other. In a situation like this, though, yeah, people get into teams (Conan and Leno) and when it's all said and done, people move on. They might be irritated for a very (very) brief time, and it may come up again in passing conversation, but it doesn't really affect anybody.

Put simply, people want to bitch about something without truly compromising their personal integrity or genuine motives. Being upset about who gets to host The Tonight Show isn't something most people get genuinely pissed over; politics, on the other hand, is.


Great blog! Very well said. it is kind of astounding the people that have got behind him.


It's a little bit funny. But it's actually brilliant. Wow, I did not know you were this smart. I mean, obviously you are smart, but...Oh, never mind.

Insightful. I mean insightful.


Well said Michael, although I think the rallies weren't as serious as others are perceiving them. One day of having fun and supporting something or someone you believe in won't ruin the world because you aren't out doing charity work. I do agree that in order to really make a difference people need to take action and express their dissatisfaction and anger instead of just moaning and groaning.

That being said, Conan is a class act and will be missed on my TV until his return in the near future.


Did you just compliment Letterman? Wow. No.

The comments to this entry are closed.