Yesterday, at 10:15 a.m. Pacific time, an earthquake measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale hit central California; news reports claimed that you could feel the shakes in Los Angeles, but no one I spoke to in the area noticed a thing. One day prior a similar sort of seismic activity struck the entertainment industry: Conan O'Brien had finally signed a contract to succeed Jay Leno in 2009 as the network's newest "Tonight Show" host. It shocked me that Hollywood insiders I knew balked at speculating about the news. Were network omertas keeping them silent? No, they said. Conan was expected to follow Leno's lead. It would have been news if he had gone to CBS or--more scandalously--to Fox. Minor quakes that leave everything intact are a part of life; this was a minor quake.
To me, though, the late-night shakeup signifies something huge despite its apparent conservativeness. Those of us who watch and appreciate Conan seriously may only have the comedic leader as we know him for the next five years. For nothing seems more anti-Conan--more antithetical to his irreverent, superficially collegiate but sophisticatedly subversive meta-humor--than being the company man who's happy to do what he has to do to win the coveted corner office. Careful Conan observers know that he has always wanted to escape his damning 12:35 a.m. time slot. But how could having to do what he does at 12:35 for another five years--all for a shot at the supposed brass-ring of late-night TV--seem digestible to him? Doesn't he, as Conan, think further outside the so-called box? And can he really love the grueling hard work of producing his show so much that he's willing to do it for another five years just to eventually win the golden opportunity to water his material down for a broader and narrower-thinking national audience with an earlier bedtime?
Conan is endlessly creative, rebellious, and curious: eager to mock himself and his guests in order to send up the nature of his enterprise. But this move shows that he's much more patient and conservative than his comedy suggests, and that doesn't bode well for the future of his beloved act. True, it would have been a shocker for him to turn down the offer. But those who follow the comedy world's rumblings with a discerning ear know that he has already surpassed Jay Leno and David Letterman in terms of comedic innovation.
He deserves an 11:35 spot, if not now then soon, and I'm surprised he wasn't as rebellious as David Letterman was years ago when he balked at NBC before taking his enterprise to CBS. Indeed, I had been hoping that by 2009 Conan would have been ready to progress beyond late-night network TV. That due to his high-functioning mind he would have grown bored and hence become interested in pursuing less rigid, confining methods of comedic expression. He deserves to be the one being interviewed twice a year by a wacky but crowd-friendly emcee, and he knows that. He must have just weighed his options and decided that he can handle censors, conservative fans, and an increasingly invasive Federal Communications Commission as he ages. But how can that be? This is the host who green lights sketches by Robert Smigel starring Triumph the Insult Comic Dog: a brilliantly irreverent puppet hound who humps everything in sight and ends abrasive tirades with the phrase "for me to poop on."
Never before Conan had a late-night host thrown up a cut-out image of our current president--or Saddam Hussein, or a pop-culture joke like the boxer Mike Tyson--and allowed one of his writers to exaggeratedly impersonate that person's voice while obviously displaying the perimeter of the subject's mouth, all in order to mock a low-rent attempt of impersonation. When Conan's President Clinton bragged about loving the ladies, later screaming "Neeyah," you didn't think you were watching Clinton. You knew you were watching a caricature impersonation made all the more obviously fake by a one-dimensional image lacking lips. Or how about Conan's infamous desk-driving sketch in which he holds a loose steering wheel in his hands as a low-quality moving image of a street streams behind him? These sketches aren't about straight humor. They're about mocking dead-on but terribly ineffective attempts at straight humor. They're challenging.
According to an article in yesterday's New York Times, Conan had been vocal about his disappointment when learning months back that NBC signed Leno for another five years. The Conan who edited The Harvard Lampoon might have found a way to stick it to them; eventually beating them at their own game may be the ultimate victory on paper, but it's not the creative, acerbic, humor-loving thing to do that his devoted disciples expect.
To perform regularly at 11:35 p.m. on the godfather of late-night TV shows, Conan will have to fill Jay Leno's shoes even more tightly than it seems, and that may mean the pound for acts like Triumph. Though Jay Leno just admitted to enjoying life as a Democrat in a huge-scoop L.A. Weekly interview courtesy of media-probe-extraordinaire Nikki Finke, he has, over the years, seemed terribly middle-of-the-road if not all-out right leaning to the Middle-America viewers who have kept him on top of David Letterman. (And even though recent late-night ratings war reports claim that the battle is as close as ever, Leno still emerges on top regularly.) Jay Leno will be remembered for humor that refused to challenge his fans or ever stray from the norm. Let's face it: Leno's monologue jokes (and all monologues are collaborations written by writing staffs, to be fair) are often episodes of straight ridicule. They're simple. Leno often speaks on or below the level of his supposed audience. He doesn't elevate them.
Conan's humor is not at its best when it occasionally turns in that direction. His virtues lie in riffing off his own nerdy proclivities as a teenager, the nature of media interviews, and the narratively comedic roots he honed at "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons." Few performers have as creative a writerly mind as Conan O'Brien. Late-night hosts of decades past, including Jack Parr and Johnny Carson, have been great, comfortable presences memorable for their spot-on one-liners. But the expansiveness of Conan's mind has always promised a more expressive future--movies, solo TV specials, live stand-up, books, entertainment royalty. At 11:35 Conan will just have to get more mainstream and more appealing to America's middle-aged and senior viewers. Sure, he is aging as we speak, too. But his mind is young, his synapses razor-sharp. And that mindset usually turns off the sticks-in-the-mud who think Leno is the best thing to happen to variety shows since Ed Sullivan.
If Conan is ultimately the sort of brilliant comedic mind that his fans think him to be, won't he be ready for something else in five years? Something even more sophisticated? Hosting "The Tonight Show" isn't more sophisticated than his present job but more limiting. It's prestigious. And you can't fault Conan for wanting to be recognized for the superiority of his humor. But I fear that Conan's humor will have trouble growing in that desirable but infertile space. He will successfully take over for Leno and soon clearly enjoy the title as one of the greatest late-night hosts America has ever known. But the likelihood that his humor will be diluted is strong. And that could well grow slowly into a pervasive and corrosive shame to all who love and admire his wit.