A poster by artist Mike Mitchell voices support for Conan O’Brien in his feud with NBC.
CREDIT: Mike Mitchell
I’m with Coco.
Could it be otherwise? The red-headed host of The Tonight Show, formally known as Conan O’Brien, is a bit of a hero these days, having gingerly stood up to a sinking network eager to treat him like a flipper does a pinball. Almost immediately, the Internet Illuminati divided neatly into Team Coco and Team Jay Leno, the latter casting its lot with O’Brien’s predecessor and successor. It was time to choose.
Not that I had any doubt where I stood. Even if, for some reason—a sudden stroke, maybe, or a steel beam to the head—I were to find Leno’s limp comedic antics worthy of anything other than profound contempt, I would still support Coco.
Before you accuse me of frivolity—what, after all, are these televised scuffles when millions of real people scramble for safety and cower in fear?—allow me this audacious claim: Coco’s plight is a morality tale for our time.
Let us review the facts: having promised the coveted Tonight Show to O’Brien, NBC first undermined its new host by naming his predecessor, Leno, as the host of a daily, prime-time variety show and then, when that experiment went sour, demanded that O’Brien push his show’s start time to five minutes past midnight—which would mean that the Tonight Show wouldn’t start until tomorrow—to make room for yet more Leno-led programming. O’Brien refused. He stood up to the besuited bozos who bossed him around. This week was his last on the job.
Even without having ever chuckled at the masturbating bear, say, or marveled at the moronic charm of The Interrupter, it’s easy to identify with O’Brien. Gangly and pale, with a bright-red pompadour that looks like it was born of a passionate affair between the hairstyles of Elvis and Elvira, O’Brien is one of the oddest-looking men ever to grace the small screen. His peculiarity is a big part of his charm; rarely a moment goes by without some self-deprecating quip about his translucent skin or his genuinely terrible impersonations. As his guests, writers, and friends have frequently testified, O’Brien is that rara avis of network TV, a truly sincere man, and it’s his candor, even more than his humor, that has driven millions to join the ranks of Team Coco.
And then there’s NBC. Think your employers are a bunch of power-mad loons who, as O’Brien himself so poignantly put it, eat money and defecate problems? Imagine what poor Coco must feel. Sure, he’s walking home with a reported $32 million buyout, but he now faces an uncertain future, not to mention the dozens of employees who abandoned their former lives in New York to follow him to Burbank.
This, of course, is not the first time the network chooses to engage in perfidy. Leno himself got his break at the expense of David Letterman, who, like O’Brien, was promised Johnny Carson’s old chair and then kicked to the curb. Back then, at least, NBC had the courtesy of supporting its men: it stuck with Leno for two years as he trailed behind Letterman in the ratings, allowing him to build up his base and gradually climb to the top. It also gave Leno a strong lead-in audience with hit shows like Seinfeld and Friends, innovative programming that required far-sighted executives to take risks and trust their tastes.
Good luck finding such men anymore. Run by Jeff Zucker, NBC is combating its dismal last-place ranking among major networks by making decisions that further remove it from any semblance of relevancy. Leno’s 10 p.m. show is a case in point: with low production costs and little flavor, it’s the White Castle of television programming. Viewers seeking more palatable stuff have long ago gone elsewhere.
A man who won the presidency of his high school’s student body by running on the slogan “The Little Man with the Big Ideas,” Zucker might want to take this idea to heart: this week, drop the Journal and pick up Jeremiah.
The author of this week’s haftorah tells us of the destruction of one empire, Egypt, at the hands of another, Babylon. The Egyptians’ sin is well known: cruel and untoward behavior towards their employees, the Israelites. No matter how mighty you are, Jeremiah orates, act imperiously and you’ll soon be answering to a much higher power.
Seen in this light, the late-night drama can be recast not as a salacious story of ego and ignorance but as the latest installment in an eternal cycle of power and vanity. While NBC executives are not, to the best of my knowledge, buried, like the pharaohs of old, with scarabs and servants, it’s not unfair to see the network as a diminutive reincarnation of the ancient Egyptian empire, a cultural beacon toward which others lift their eyes, a moneyed entity jockeying for global influence. And while NBC’s sins, of course, are nothing like the evils of Egypt, O’Brien’s story teaches us that the network, like Egypt of old, was driven to its predicament by forgetting that, despite some appearances to the contrary, wealth and power cannot be permitted to override the eternal values of civility, courtesy, and respect.
It’s a lesson that empires of all sorts frequently need to relearn. Until they do, I’m with Coco.