Well, that’s that. Nothing important has happened in the world, but Conan and NBC have reached détente. Tonight’s Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien will be the last. Conan is walking away with more than $30 million in eff-you dollars, and NBC will pony up another $12 million in severance pay for his staff, said to number around 200 people. ($60k per if everyone gets an equal share.) A non-disparagement clause will bind Conan from talking any more smack about his soon-to-be-former employer, at least for a few months. Fear not, the rest of the world will pick up the slack, I’m sure. Best of all, he’ll be free to return to TV as soon as September 1st.
So far, so good-as-could-have-been-expected. But all wars claim casualties. I don’t just mean Conan’s lifelong dream. He understands now that the Tonight Show he coveted and the network that put it on haven’t existed for eons. Since he wrote that brilliant “People of Earth” letter last week rejecting NBC’s plan to put him behind Leno yet again, he’s been hotter than ever. While he clearly never would have chosen to have it go down this way, this whole saga has helped him shake off the mantle of history that seemed to hold him back at 11:35. We should all be the beneficiaries of such profound kicks in the creative pants — and be so richly paid to have them.
But like I was saying, casualties: Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. Pimpbot 5000. The Masturbating Bear. Vomiting Kermit. All K.I.A., apparently, as the intellectual property of NBC. Let us pause for a moment to honor their noble service. (They’ll probably have some close analogues wherever Conan surfaces next.)
. . .
I’m sure Conan is glad it’s all over. Leno will absorb the punches that Conan, and David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel, and everyone who’s on, or watches, TV, keeps throwing at him more easily now, secure in the knowledge that his audience will have forgotten all about this unpleasantness by the time he returns as Tonight Show host on March 1. As others have pointed out, the Lenolytes aren’t on Twitter, and they’ve probably sat out these last two weeks of backstage drama as surely as they sat out the Conan-helmed Tonight Show. Everyone says they want to move on.
But I am not ready to let go.
It’s not just because of my conviction, widely shared, that Conan is the more imaginative, generous comedian. And, coming clean, it’s not even because I was a loyal viewer. I’ve always been an itinerant, if-I-see-it consumer of late-night comedy. I rarely saw his Tonight Show from front-to-back. Like a lot of fair-weather watchers, I have made it a point to tune in since Conan told his bosses where they could cram their proffered 12:05 timeslot. This week’s episodes, especially, been wounded, angry, and above all surreal. Must-See TV, if ever I must-saw it.
No, I’ve been holding my Team Coco lifetime membership card (not an actual, tangible card, though my T-shirt is in the mail) close to my heart since this whole thing started because it’s one of the scant few tethers I feel to the pop culture of my own generation.
This is not an easy thing to admit, but too often I feel like the Nielsen-counted silent majority of non-Tweeting, Lipitor-taking, Jaywalking-loving Lenolytes is my true peer group. Theirs are the graying heads standing in front of me at Bruce Springsteen concerts. (I carry Ibuprofen with me when I know I’m going to be standing up for five or six hours. Do they not need it?) These are the people who got to see Elvis Costello in 1978 and The Clash in 1979 and Prince in 1981 and R.E.M. in 1983. These are the people who caught all my favorite TV shows — The Avengers, The Prisoner (v. 1967), Star Trek (LBJ-era, w/ Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all wearing eyeliner) — the first time around, and maybe socialized around them in a non-uniform-wearing, non-convention-attending way, like people do with LOST now. Maybe.
Oh, and these are the people who got to have their twenties before AIDS. More than one employer or mentor-type who came of age during the 70s has told me they do not envy my generation, for exactly this reason. No matter how philosophically they try to say it, it still sounds like gloating.
I was in high school when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. It happened two days before my then-girlfriend’s mom, a much-beloved Social Studies teacher at our school, was killed in a traffic accident on her way to get her hair done. I could say that the for-many-epochal event of Cobain’s death was for me blotted out by grief for someone I knew and liked personally, and who — despite throwing me out of her house when 11 p.m. rolled around as a matter of policy — liked me back. But that wouldn’t be the truth.
The truth is that I didn’t own Nevermind until the 21st century, much less The Chronic or Enter the Wu-Tang. I had a lot of Aerosmith in my collection in April of 1994*. A reasonably thorough investigation might have turned up a Billy Joel CD in my room at one point. I was not in any way cool. With a few exceptions, way too well-known to people who know me, my tastes in most things were at a primitive stage, if not larval. When he died, Cobain meant nothing to me.
(Some particularly self-immolating kernel of my being has long wanted to admit publicly that I was and, there’s no longer any point in denying, still am an admirer of Sting’s first three or four solo albums.**)
But what were we talking about? Ah: Conan. Always liked him. Even in 1993, when he would sweat like Richard Nixon on camera and Letterman asked him point-blank, on air, “How did you get this job?” I didn’t become a regular viewer until college, after he’d already been in the Late Night saddle for a few years. I was there when Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog saluted Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi for having dated Cher “when she was only in her sixties.” I rapped along with Pimpbot: “The bitches think I’m pretty / Got my face at Circuit City.”
Conan went to Harvard. He never had to have a job as an adult that wasn’t in showbiz. For all of that, he still felt like my guy. And unless Twitter is lying — heeeeeey, waitaminutenow — I am, for about 12 more hours, legion. I belong.
*There were a lot of albums released in 1994 that I would play today without hestitation. But the only one I can actually recall buying in 1994 is Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. It might have been for my dad.
* *Seriously. Sting! I hope this admission is not tantamount to resigning my part-time gig as a music critic.