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Saturday, 5 of December of 2020

My Night with Conan O’Brien

Since I hit the age that I could watch late-night without worrying about my bedtime, Conan has been my guy. Leno was always too pedestrian, Letterman wasn’t on NBC (I had brand-loyalty from an early age), and Conan spoke to my sense of humor, oddly-shaped as it was by Ren & Stimpy and Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. As his show got glossier, more refined, intelligent even, it almost felt like it grew up with me. Hearing about his getting The Tonight Show was almost like hearing about my own triumph. That’s my guy, the shock of red hair that was on mainstream media yet still kept a low-profile. His success was only exciting to me and maybe a handful of others I knew but it was like a new age was coming and, for kids like me that wanted to be in the content-creation business, his arrival to a flagship program could only be a sign of great things.

Then six years passed and Conan got his show and, for some reason, I fell off. And I wasn’t alone. And NBC hemorrhaged viewers in all facets of the network. And Jay Leno’s 10 o’clock gig failed as miserably as everyone thought it would. And Conan was being pressured to build up the audience it took Jay years to scrounge up. And the network did some things that not only violated the scrap of brand-loyalty I had left but also cast my guy out. My guy! Conan was classy about it, made it about business but also about the tradition and history his silly little show got to be a part of.

This is all stuff you already know. What is important to this story is what happened after and why his eventual national tour (titled as a slap in the face to the network that spurned him) is the way it was. This wasn’t his late-night show taken for a ride. This wasn’t a chance for him to test new material for his new show on TBS. This, instead, was a celebration of years of branding and how Conan’s iconography swelled from being a recognizable figure to a cause. This is also the story of how this tour was not just a celebration of the cult of personality known as Team CoCo but also how this was a chance for us to say goodbye.

So Conan took the high road (for the most part) and had (as he notes in his show) the most public “losing of your job” in the history of the nation. The ground support for him was a testament to how much people appreciated the idea of him (even if they weren’t watching the show really) and that can be attributed back to his branding, that face logo, the red pompadour, the string dance. Sure, Jay Leno has the chin and that squeaky, muttering impression everyone does of him but those are just quirks to his character, the stuff impressionists latch onto in order to invoke his personality. Conan has acts, pieces to himself that people can attach to, because he would repeat them over and over again, probably because they got laughs but they were also able to stick in your head. Arnold Schwarzenegger eating a sausage, a nerd pushing up his glasses, that cartoon head they placed on all of their post-commercial bumps. Conan O’Brien was the figurehead of a concept and what transpired last January humanized him into a cause.

The tour is the culmination of that groundswell of support. Social networks were rife with “team coco” references, professional-looking fan artwork (that Conan himself would eventually adopt), and speculation about Conan’s triumphant return, despite the fact that his ratings before were not very good. The tour is (was, since Atlanta was the last show) a celebration of Conan. It was self-indulgent but this was a different part of the man. What this act promised was a different side of the humanized concept, one that could speak out and wasn’t saddled by the restrictions of a network and its advertisers. Conan could be Conan. He had the freedom to express himself the way he wanted.

Apparently, that was a rock concert.

It started with Reggie Watts doing what I could only really term as a parody of stand-up comedy. Just calling it post-modern would steal some of the comic appeal of what he was doing. His first real joke was just a series of platitudes, like blank Mad Libs mediocre comedians fill in to create their acts but Watts was delivering the blanks. He loves to work that “it doesn’t really matter what you say but how you say it” concept into his act, evidenced by later telling actual jokes other comedians would crux parts of their routine on but working them into various song styles and funny voices. It was one of those things that, had I not been a hypercritical person, I would have thought was pretty funny. But, since my brain can’t turn off that “explore the theory” part, I realized he wasn’t really being a comedian as much as he was making fun of comedians. When he made a joke about women’s purses being too big, that wasn’t the joke. The joke was that he was telling the joke. He also did several stints where he was tell jokes in an unintelligible voice, hiding the content but expressing it in a way that made it funny. 70% how you sound, 20% how you look, 10% what you actually say.

Reggie Watts used a lot of music in his act and was, unbeknownst to me, set-up for Conan’s show. Especially prevalent in the later episodes of The Tonight Show (and arguably present in the Late Night lullabies), Conan is a big fan of music and so, when given the opportunity to do something like this, he worked musical numbers into the act as much as could, as often as he could, often playing lead guitar and singing. I was expecting more sketches but this was almost more of a concert. It seemed like every ten minutes a stage hand was coming in to hand him a guitar.

He had several guests on stage. His having guests didn’t surprise me since I heard that he had people like Jack White and others help out along the way. But for Atlanta, his last show, he only had two and they came out during the same sketch: Evander Holyfield and Jack McBrayer. Now, I didn’t expect to see Megan Fox or Will Ferrell strut out on stage but maybe I just expected more than a boxer who’s lost relevance and Kenneth the Page. Andy Richter was there, too, of course and he did what I thought was the best bit of the night, an advertisement for the Cleremont Lounge. I don’t think they fully understood what an institution that place is since, once the bit started, the entire place erupted in cheers and shouts (I personally threw my hands in the air in glee) and they both took a couple steps back. Conan wore the same suit Eddie Murphy wore in Raw (though the concept has been done to death on Scrubs) which was funny but was swallowed by another musical number. I eventually stopped looking at it like a comedy show and started to see it for what it was.

At the end of the show, Conan started thanking everyone and talked about how this show was like a creative exploration for him. The show opened with a video featuring a fatter version of him slothing around his house unemployed. He had a full bit about going through (a modified version of) the stages of grief. Even the two parts of the show (Reggie Watts’s part and Conan’s) began with “Live and Let Die” and “I Fought the Law (and the Law Won).” Conan used this show to work things out. He was able to do this through the culmination of his brand, using the groundswell of support for the concept people latched on to, to put together something that is not necessarily the character he portrayed on television but the true person. Leno and Letterman still play characters on TV but this tour presented a thinly-veiled version of Conan’s true self. To me, this is the end game of his personal branding. He started off hiding behind the skits and quirks and symbols of himself, then to contextualizing those things with his humanity, to finally becoming a performer outside of a system, with only himself to answer to. He identified himself for so long with NBC and late night and this show was a way to reclaim that identity. Sure, I didn’t really like the musical numbers a whole lot but that is an important part of Conan’s life and that was why they were important.

Ultimately, this show was a way for him to get rid of that past through repetition until it lost meaning and by recapturing a piece of himself. We witnessed a rebirth of sorts. And, to me, it’s a fitting way for me to say goodbye to the skin he shed. That’s not to say that he’ll be any different come September when he shows up on TV again or that he’ll never talk about what NBC did to him. This is how he worked through it. And I’m glad to see it go.

Especially since the Masturbating Bear was on stage to set it free.


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