By now, we all know the CW-like drama of Coco, The Chin, and The Peacock. It’s hard to think of a time when late night comedy has attracted more attention, and Conan O’Brien, in particular, was funnier then ever—which is the one facet of the debacle that failed to get enough coverage.
Conan’s very public firing by NBC’s draconian, corporate oversight board (led by uber-Darth Vader Jeff Zucker) ticked O’Brien off in such an acute way, that the red-headed step-child in him came out swinging. He told jokes that came from a place of deep and profound earnestness that meant something to Conan personally, and while doing so, he unwittingly hit a collective anxiety about job loss at large. During his last—and best—week on air, the tallest man in show business was finally pulling the kind of numbers, publicity, viewers, and ratings the network was hoping for all along.
Conan’s “Late Night” brand of immature, college-appropriate humor always catered to a small demographic. And when he took over The Tonight Show, he always seemed on the defensive, reactive, never comfortable at the helm trying to find a broader audience. That is, until he got fired.
It was so thrilling! He looked like it was his first night at The Improv, and all that bottled up rage, sarcasm, and smarts were caramelized around some witty balls and tossed squarely at NBC’s bulls’ eye. And his jokes hit: “I’ve been having a hard time explaining this whole situation to my kids, because they’re still very young. So I had a doll made of myself, and now I can show my kids exactly where NBC touched daddy.” Again and again and again.
On his last Tonight Show appearance, ZZ Top and Beck played and Will Ferrell sang “Free Bird” while Conan ripped a guitar solo alongside them. I don’t think I’ve seen a smile that big since “Police Academy’s” Commandant Lassard got a surprise BJ at the mic stand. Conan was having a great time being the fun, feisty, witty, captivating truant that the Harvard Lampoon and Lorne Michaels both found so attractive in him.
Losing a job he’d worked seventeen years for made O’Brien’s jokes very personal and very good. Because they dealt with what’s going on in the States right now: corporate oversight, working hard and getting screwed by the man, and looking for a job, any job. As he said, “I’m Conan O’Brien, future Donkey Kong champion.”
All of a sudden, his wealthy, entitled, insular world coincided with the fate of millions of Americans, and, in a twist of fate, his jokes were speaking directly to the audience he’d been so desperately trying to reach. Finally he understood what regular Americans face every single day. Conan said upon his dismissal in one of his monologues: “Hi, I’m Conan O’Brien and I’m just three days away from the biggest drinking binge in history.” You can almost hear a laid-off worker telling that joke to a buddy over a beer at a bar.
Americans began supporting Conan in droves, even those who’d never watched his program, and though a Harvard grad and multi-millionaire, he became the Everyman who was on a very public soapbox telling the Man where he could shove it. And since nothing kills mendacity faster than a late night comic with a killer punch line, Conan, with his rifle loaded, began firing off jokes about NBC shirking its responsibility. (Hell hath no fury like a comic scorned.) NBC was summarily chastened, depantsed and TKO’d on national TV. Humiliating Jeff Zucker in such a public way is what many out-of-work Americans wish they could’ve done to their bosses.
Comedians, often picked over and picked on in high school, are the ones who learned how to turn their tears into jokes in order to survive high school. When O’Brien was fired so nakedly, millions of people watched him relive those traumatic years he thought were long behind him. The results were humiliating for him but marvelous for us. As Zucker dutifully played teacher’s pet, O’Brien turned class clowning into an art form. Though he didn’t get his time slot, he earned some serious underdog capital (and a cool 30 mil) and found a relevant comedic voice that, while off the air, he should build upon in some public way. Because if Conan does, wherever he lands in the fall, he’ll find a very rapt, very loyal, and very large audience upon his return.
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