A Conan Post-Mortem Thought Experiment.Posted: January 23, 2010
Now that Conan is done at The Tonight Show…I’ve been conducting a little “thought experiment” for my own amusement.
I always loved Late Night with Conan O’Brien. I loved the brilliance of the show’s humor, its edgy, free, try-anything subversiveness. While succeeding as light entertainment, the show made our “entertainment lite” culture the target of its satire, and hit the target time after time. Conan had authenticity as the host of that show, because the show felt like the man — felt like the man himself, transformed into a show.
At first blush the idea of being able to watch this show an hour earlier sounded fantastic, but when Conan took over The Tonight Show, that’s not what happened. Conan blanded out. He was still good, but in a more generic way, rounding his square edges in order to fit into the round hole of the earlier time slot. Was he dumbing himself down? Or listening to the wrong advice?
We know that what Conan did do with The Tonight Show in his seven month stint — attempting some sort of Conan 2.0 for broader consumption — didn’t set the world on fire. (The event that led to his demise was Jay Leno’s failure in prime time, but it’s safe to say that had Conan pulled in big audiences for The Tonight Show, he’d have kept the gig.)
So changing didn’t work. Would staying the same?
We can’t know, but we can guess.
Let’s go back a couple of years. Late Night with Conan O’Brien is going strong. NBC — this is the important part of the thought experiment, without telling Conan — decides to air his show in the hour immediately following the local news, and Jay Leno’s Tonight Show after that. After all, both shows are taped around 5 in the afternoon the same day; the order they’re broadcast is arbitrary, so NBC reverses the order. Conan never finds out, and everyone does his best to make sure he never does. As far as he knows, he’s still doing the show that airs after The Tonight Show, not the show that airs after the local news. He’s still doing it in New York, on a modest set, to New York studio audiences. Because he doesn’t know that his time slot is different, he keeps doing the same great edgy subversive hilarious show he always has.
The question is this: If NBC had done that, would that show have worked coming right after the local news? Or do people need something else in that hour than what Conan does best?
Though a fan of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, I have a hard time in the cold light of day imagining that show transplanted to the earlier hour. You can’t be subversive and be a network’s standard-bearer. And changing Conan didn’t work, either. Much as I hate to write the words, NBC’s reviled re-reprogramming decision of January 8 may have been correct. (One explanation for what went wrong with the show is that Conan was too freaked out by the “responsibility” of wearing the mantle of a franchise he had revered for so long.) There is a third way — which Conan didn’t do — which is for him to figure out how to broaden his appeal while maintaining the authenticity of who he is, and I wish him well in figuring that out for another network. If anyone can, it’s Conan. He’s brilliant.