Out of the Mouths of Clowns
The other night, like many of you, I eagerly anticipated the last Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. There was quite a ramp up for this. Like you, I read about his outrageous $45 million dollar settlement to step way from his dream job. 12 million of that money is for his staff, many of whom uprooted their lives in New York to join him in California. I watched Lettermen skewer NBC with some sharp, biting comedy; heard about Jimmy Kimmel’s (my mother’s favorite) antics, dressing like Jay Leno, fake chin and all, for an entire show; and enjoyed the commentary of Patton Oswald (cribbed somewhat from Bill Hicks, I guess) that Jay Leno didn’t deserve the gig because he was lazy and unoriginal and therefore not funny. Rarely does television offer you something so tantalizing, so rich. I mean, these are real people who are living through a bit of a scandal publically and because a part of their job description demands that they tell jokes about whatever’s in the newspapers, were obliged to tell jokes about their own turmoil. Talk about a house of mirrors. Thank goodness it’s over. Late Night was coming dangerously close to devouring itself whole.
The show was decent for the most part with two really brilliant moments. The monologue contained some good jokes about what to do with the studio and they were witty with “leave the studio cold and empty and rename it “The World's Largest Metaphor For NBC Programming” as hands down the best of the lot. That was not so unexpected or really shocking. Late Night hosts always make fun of the boss and this is no big deal. It’s always a vague kind of: they don’t know what there doing we’re third in the ratings kind of stuff. When they make fun of the network it makes us trust them and we tune in more so it really doesn’t hurt the network. Plus Thursday night is back with Community, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and The Office. The montage of Conan’s greatest moments (a call back bit with shots of Conan’s running from New York to California that started his reign) with The Squeeze song in the background was sweet. My favorite bit from this version of The Tonight Show, puppies dressed like cats (which is exactly what it sounds like it is), was featured. Steve Carrell made a surprise visit and did an exit interview with Conan and shredded his ID card. And the shout out to Up In The Air was cool. I’m glad I saw the movie so I could get the joke. Tom Hanks was charming and dependable with his glass of scotch (or cream soda?) and of course said nothing that could be considered controversial, not even a little bit. And hey, Tom Hanks gave Conan the nickname CoCo! What an upstanding guy. Reading Questlove’s tweet announcing that Hanks’s walk on song, Lovely Rita, costs $500 thousand dollars and is on NBC’s restricted song list enhanced my viewing making me feel in the know and high-tech modern. Way to stick it to ‘em Coco. Then Neil Young (Neil. Young.) performed “Long May You Run” on dark stage with a single spotlight. It was very elegant and a lovely image and I liked that the chorus was a little on the nose. It was a farewell show after all.
But the ‘water cooler moments’ didn’t really happen till the end. Conan said that while there was a lot of talk about what he could say about his deal with NBC (his settlement includes an agreement that he will not speak of the thing for 3 months and not do a show of his own till September) he could, in fact, say whatever he pleased. And what did he choose to do? He chose the high-road thanking NBC for the work they had done together (adieu Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and masturbating bear), thanked his fans for their rabid support and then he said this: “To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I'll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask of you is one thing: please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism -- it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen."And I felt a little better. About everything.
This is not the first time we have had an experience with comedian as shaman. The first time, for me, was seeing Steve Martin’s “Let’s Get Small” bit on SNL when I was a kid. I didn’t know why it was funny, of course, but I knew it was funny somehow. I sort of waited for my brain to develop so I could get that joke. And I think we all remember hearing about Steven Colbert’s speech at the White House Correspondents Association dinner. I bet a few heads rolled after that one. I mean if Laura Bush really did say “Get F*cked” to him, as she allegedly did, then you have to think someone got fired for inviting him. Who was invited the next year? Rich Little. That vanilla sundae of a comedian who couldn’t offend a fly his imitation of it would be so complimentary. There’s Jon Stewart defining one of the many problems with the Bush administration with a Moment of Zen that featured George Bush holding hands with a Sheik from Saudi Arabia. David Letterman’s recent championing of climate change awareness.
The other great moment was the ending with Will Farrell the ZZ top dude and Beck singing Freebird in front of an enormous American flag. Free bird, a song that is used in so many jokes its gone Meta. Yelling Free Bird has morphed into a joke about bad jokes. Freebird sung by Will Ferrell with the beloved cowbell. It was pretty good (what was up with the annoying pregnant girlfriend bit, funnier in the writer’s room, I think) but what made it great was Conan playing the electric guitar as how he spent his final moments hosting The Tonight Show. Not many people get do to that at the job they just lost. Most people have to pack up their desk and carry it home on a crowded train, wake up the next morning and apply for unemployment. Conan was literally going out like a rock star. USA! USA! USA!
By the way, what is so great about The Tonight Show? Don’t get me wrong, I loved Johnny Carson, Doc Severenson and Ed McMahon like every other red-blooded American. I used to get to stay up late to watch it at a very young age. But I’m not sure it should mean as much to America as it does. Let it go America. And while we’re at it let Star Wars go, too. We had to let Michael Jackson go, didn’t we? You can still feel the sting of nostalgia but on your own time, not while I’m trying to watch the tube. The only thing you can feel nostalgic about is The Wire and even then only the first and last episodes. Besides, isn’t the formula of a host who opens with a monologue, has repartee with his band leader, signature comedy bits and talks to stars a mainstay now? I mean you take away the legacy of Johnny Carson, the time slot and that it’s on NBC and it’s just another late night show with a host who opens with a monologue has a repartee with his band leader and…oh wait…I get it now. Sorry. Yeah. I get it.
It was a good night of television, a rarity these days. I should know because I watch way too much of it.
My final words of wisdom from a clown come from Homer Simpson. Hearing these words (or word) was a small awakening for me. Homer is dealing with some crisis or other that I can’t recall right now what. Sometimes, I have a terrible memory for the Simpsons which is good since it allows me to see episodes over and over again and still find them funny. The other day I caught the Monorail episode (by Conan O’Brien, if I’m not mistaken) and I marveled at it. Anyway, Homer is having some big thing happen to him and Lisa says: “You know, Dad, the Chinese have the same word for crisis and opportunity” And Homer says: “Yeah. Crisatunity.”
See you in September, CoCo. If you do get another talk show, it will be your second highly anticipated show of the year. You’ll have relevance, not just a great job. You are fortunate, indeed.
-Anita Deely, Anderson Lawfer, Eric Roach