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Conan vs. the Chin 

I’ve watched Conan O’Brien nearly every night since I was 13 years old. Obviously, I keep late hours. Though it has had its ups and downs, Conan’s show is perhaps the most important comedy institution of my generation.

Though David Letterman pioneered late night absurdism, Conan perfected it with the help of a brilliant writing staff led by Robert Smigel and Louis CK. His show isn’t pleasantly odd like Dave’s, it’s often aggressively weird and off-putting to the mainstream.

The very first bit in the very first episode showed Conan prancing down a New York City street cheerily deflecting questions about how’d he fill Letterman’s shoes, only to be stopped at the last second from hanging himself. The show’s most popular recurring characters include the Masturbating Bear and a guy called The Interrupter who dresses like Doug Henning and spends his money “on vodka and Tori Amos albums” and his time “at home in a fetal position reading Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret”.

So I’m a tad worried about Conan taking over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno a year and a half from now. Leno’s target demographic is middle-aged couples in flyover country. Conan’s audience is largely comprised of college students, stoners and hipsters for whom “late night” isn’t really all that late.

Leno followed by Conan is already the talk show equivalent of a Wild Hogs/Wet Hot American Summer double feature. Will NBC really let someone this strange take over one of their most lucrative franchises?

Rumors have been swirling that NBC may attempt to buy out Conan’s contract for $40 million to keep Leno in the host chair beyond the planned 2009 transition date. The idea is that the network is hemorrhaging money and may not want to take a chance on unproven talent when they’ve got a cash cow already.

By the way, aren’t you impressed that Leno’s apparent deal with Satan keeps paying off? NBC has shanghaied Johnny Carson, David Letterman and now maybe even Conan to keep the Large-Chinned One happy. Six million people watch him every night, but I don’t know a single one of them. He’s like Creed: 30 million albums sold, nobody admits to owning one.

Part of the appeal of Conan’s show is that, fourteen years later, he still doesn’t seem like a broadcast professional and his show still feels like some buddies screwing around for an hour every night.

And unlike any other late night show, it’s a group effort; recurring bits starring Brian McCann, Amy Poehler, Brian Stack and Pierre Bernard regularly steal the spotlight from the host himself.

I’m not convinced that this ramshackle charm will float an hour earlier. The Tonight Show comes with considerable baggage historically and commercially. There’s no way Conan can get away with at much there as he does in his current time slot.

NBC chairman Ben Silverman recently gave an interview publicly nixing the Masturbating Bear after the changeover. But this isn’t just about a Masturbating Bear, dammit! This is an indication of what NBC is looking for when 2009 rolls around. That is, something safe, bland and generic.

So for Conan to get the slot, he’ll no longer be allowed to have full control over his show and we’ll get something much glossier and market-tested.

And don’t get me started on who’s taking over Late Night after his departure. Allegedly it’s down to two contenders. The first is Conan’s current lead-out, Carson Daly, who may well be the most negative, self-loathing downer in the history of television. Watching this creep is watching failure.

The second is Jimmy Fallon. I’d throw around some adjectives about him too, except that nothing I could possibly say would be as bad as just “Jimmy Fallon”. How this clown continues to work is utterly beyond me. The only logical explanation is that NBC set out to find the only person alive who is less funny than Jay Leno. The idea of Jimmy Fallon being on TV every night of the week, even after midnight, scares the bejeezus out of me.

I just noticed that I wrote this entire column referring to Conan O’Brien as “Conan” when I’d call virtually anyone else “O’Brien”. I think most of his fans feel the same way, just as the generation before mine lovingly called his predecessor “Dave”.

The last thing I’d want is for him to endure the same public humiliation by being passed over for the Holy Grail that is The Tonight Show, especially for someone as terrible as Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon. But I don’t want his show to lose everything that makes it special just to get it, either.

Scott Howard is a writer, artist and all-around media gadfly. Write him at sahoward@gmail.com or scott-howard.com.

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Connect Today 12.04.2016

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