On April 17, 2010, the week Conan O’Brien’s TBS deal was announced, comedy critic and producer Steve Heisler read the following at The Paper Machete.
If Conan O’Brien never told a joke again, he’d be the funniest person in all of television. Instead, he’s the funniest person in all of television until proven otherwise. And you know what? It’s probably going to happen in November. On TBS. Very funny.
For those of you who haven’t been following the Conan deal, which is so prevalent you could have simply placed your eyes near or around virtually any website in existence, here’s the story for you, you lazy chachwang. Conan was in talks to bring his show to Fox, a TV network known for all things funny, and cancelled.
But while those talks were going on, TBS, very funny, a network known for saying it’s funny because they air Family Guy reruns, swooped in like Pope Benedict on a molestation scandal cover-up. They got very serious very quickly, offering Conan ownership of the material he creates, a matching budget to Fox but over four shows a week instead of five, and what they promised would be the biggest marketing campaign in history during major league baseball.
Even George Lopez called Conan to offer his time slot, perfectly content to be Conan’s non-union Mexican equivalent. The deal went down in only 10 days. You know what else takes 10 days? Eternal repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Clearly, this deal…was important.
The media exploded in speculation, an inevitability as predictable as the sky being blue and Larry The Cable Guy getting laid in Larry The Cable Guy movies. At first people were like, whaaaaaaat? TBS, very funny? They wondered what the hell had just happened. Then they tried to convince themselves, and us, that this was good. On cable, Conan could do a show the way he wanted. His ratings didn’t have to be as high. According to New York magazine’s Vulture, on cable he could portray “rear entry sex.”
Then the holes started being poked: Could Conan get as good of guests on TBS? Would competition with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report be a death sentence? Could Oprah ruin this somehow? It’s a lot to digest.
Me? In the words of my AV Club brethren, I’m cautiously optimistic, with an accent on the cautiously. I just didn’t think The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien was funny. At all. I loved the Late Show though. Sometimes. When I watched it at least, which wasn’t all that often I suppose. Conan on the Late Show at least was brazenly weird and unabashedly smart.
But Conan on the Tonight Show was like a kid wear his dad’s suit: He knew it, we knew it, but we all chose to ignore the fact that things didn’t fit quite right. Jokes went on too long, and were punched at the end with multiple tags as if to say, “Hey, a joke just occurred,” which is a boon to comedy if I’ve ever seen one. The banter with Andy Richter was, to put it mildly, bad. And as he struggled to find his lanky and awkward place on the late night landscape, viewers moved on. And not just ex-Leno loyalists, but a lot of you. Certainly me.
Obviously the situation was different than it is now: That was NBC, this is TBS, very funny. But the main similarity is that there was much fanfare over his move, and after a little while interest was lost. It’s a glaring exhibit A that people seem to be ignoring, and the more we all analyze what Conan can and can’t do, the more I tune out to that, too.
I needed more information. So, to finish this piece, I went to talk to the people who will tentatively be doing the actual watching—some real man on the street journalism. And in this day and age, the men on the street stroke their penises on Chatroulette. So that’s what I did.
I mean, minus the stroking the penis thing.
So I took a picture of Conan with a monkey on his shoulder, like his Twitter icon, and printed it out big. I put it on a clipboard, propped it next to my camera, and wrote, “Are you gonna watch me on TBS?” in the corner. That way I could type and let it sit there in the chat window. I sat back and waited.
I’m not really sure what I expected. Probably something along the lines of, “GEE I LOVE CONAN OF COURSE [strokes dick].” But while I found much of that, for lack of a better word, schween-ness, that sentiment and that enthusiasm were both decidedly not present. People stared at “me” blankly; most clicked next within one half of a second. The responses I got to my query were, “Yes.” “No.” “What’s conan?” “I’m British.” “Feel good?” “Hey boy, you so sexy, ” and a lot of yelling. I was on for hours. Hours.
I tried Facebook, posting messages on the pages of Jay Leno, George Lopez, and to hedge my bets, an anti-Irish group. I simply asked if anyone would be watching when Conan premiered on TBS very funny in November, and what might stop them from watching. A day went by. Only one person commented on my Leno post, then promptly deleted the response.
I told myself maybe these Facebook ignorers felt the way I did: Too much talk about Conan tentatively being funny on TBS very funny, not nearly enough of Conan actually being funny on TBS very funny. Zero time, in fact, an infinitely small number situated at the border of positive and negative integers, good and evil, Max Weinberg and the Max Weinberg 7.
I tried one more subtle tactic, which was to hijack a conversation at dinner last night with people much smarter than me. I wasn’t sure if I’d get the information I was seeking, because it was a situation in which nobody was nearing nor attempting to near ejaculation, that I knew of.
But as soon as I brought it up, it became clear my friend Kellen had given Conan a lot of thought, and realized something that in my haste to come to a conclusion on the matter, I hadn’t even considered. It wasn’t NBC or censors, ratings or expectations that had been Conan’s biggest problem on the Tonight Show. It was the talk show format itself. People like us got tired of Conan because people like us are growing tired of talk shows in general.
We don’t care about talk shows—they’re something our parents used to and continue to fall asleep to. We watch those shows for the comics themselves, and the ways they play with the form. The Daily Show and Colbert Report have their own take on the template; so do things like The Soup. It’s already been established that Conan can do anything he wants at TBS very funny, so why not start from scratch entirely? The endless possibilities have even less ends than I could have ever imagined.
Which is why I have to make like Green Day, and ask that you kindly “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” There’s literally nothing more to say. Chatroulette knows it. Facebook knows it. And now, I know it. Let’s let this guy [point to Conan] figure out a few things before we resume speculating, and let’s all spank this guy [point to monkey] in the mean time.