Conan O’Brien: Persona Non Grata
Conan O’Brien was a loser.
Then everything changed.
I’m going to miss Conan O’Brien. Like many misguided, pop culture-obsessed American TV watchers, I view Conan like a friend. A pal we all grew up with. And as heart-burstingly proud as I was to see him land his dream gig with The Tonight Show, I was equally devastated tonight to watch him sign off. So yeah, I’m going to miss him. But then, I’ve been missing him a while now. But more on that in a minute. First, we have to clear the air about something…
Television is a business. And the currency of television is ratings. And this is one issue that I see Conan supporters everywhere skirting around…so of course I have to go there.
Conan wasn’t getting them. And I know why.
To make it as a performer in Hollywood, you have to have a PERSONA. People need to know what to expect when they sign on to see you. When Jack Black shows up, you know you’re in for a high-energy, kinetic whirlwind of comedy-rock goodness. When Michael Cera shows up, you know to expect a soft-spoken mild-mannered nerd. Tom Cruise is always a cocky, grinning expert at something. In showbiz, you need to decide what kind of protagonist you’re going to be so people know where you fit in their universe. And there are two kinds: lovable losers and lovable winners.
Here’s an easy guide to help clarify things: Judd Apatow writes stories about lovable losers. Aaron Sorkin writes stories about lovable winners.
At Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Conan’s persona was that of the lovable loser. All his jokes were centered around his inability to achieve any kind of success. His act revolved around his jokes not landing, his props failing, the sketches flopping, the show’s unpopularity – even his own talent and attractiveness were fair game. And it worked like gangbusters. He was a loser and we loved him for it.
But then came The Tonight Show…and suddenly, the act wasn’t such a good fit anymore. Why? He had a brand new studio, a bigger salary, better clothes, A-list guests, not to mention all the media coverage that comes with landing the biggest and best gig in television. There was no denying it…Conan was no longer a loser. He was a winner. And he was about to pay for it.
Now, no one will admit this, especially now, but Conan’s act wasn’t nearly as funny on The Tonight Show as it was on Late Night. That’s okay. You don’t have to say it. That’s what we’re here for. The reason for this sudden drop in the funny is that he’d changed his act…subtly, yes, but definitely changed. He was toned down. More adult. He took fewer chances. In short, he changed his persona. We no longer knew what to expect from our old pal. During his whole on-stage career, he’d honed and polished an act built around something that no longer applied. It was like he went off to college and came back a grown up. And his fans were left waiting for the real Conan to return.
Now, did you notice how during his last week as Tonight Show host Conan was ON FIRE? His jokes were great, he was loose and fun and funnier than ever?
There’s a reason for this too and I bet you can guess what it is…NBC had forced him into a corner. Suddenly Conan was the underdog again. Everything he’d worked so hard for was in jeopardy. His show, his status, his rep were all on the line. He was David and NBC was Goliath. But this time, David was destined to lose.
That’s right. Conan’s persona shifted again. Once again he was recognizable as the guy we knew from way back…a lovable loser. We finally got him back and the world got a glimpse of what they had been missing. But tragically, just as suddenly as we got him back, he was gone again.
But there is good news.
As we all know, in Hollywood nothing lasts forever. Even defeat. And everybody…everybody…loves a comeback. (You all remember Britney Spears, right?) Coco will be back, rest assured. And with a loss THIS epic looming just behind him, we’re sure to love him more than ever when he returns.
We’ll see you soon, Conan.