Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Return of the Barbarian

As we all know, last Friday marked the denouement of the torrid Tonight Show debacle. A tearful Conan bid adieu to his brief stint on The Tonight Show, allowing Leno to again take the reins. And the unsettling part of this whole story is that, despite the fans’ outrage, despite the deluge of bad publicity this imbroglio created, despite the fact that Conan is an infinity of more funny than Leno (yes, it’s a fact, not an opinion)…Leno has replaced Conan. He’s “going down with the Titanic,” though he’s the one who kind of wanted his spot back first. Maybe he thought he could somehow use it to profit from the Avatar success.

So, as we tune into our story, evil (or mediocrity, the greatest evil of all) has triumphed over good. Conan has to flee from sight, only to be summoned when New York most needs him, or at least until September. Somehow Jimmy Fallon is still staying strong and we’ll all have to tune into Letterman or move to Middle America to understand the appeal of Jay.

Yet perhaps this cloud has its silver cliché. Yes, Conan on The Tonight Show delivered far more risibility than Leno. But, was he still most inferior to another host: Conan on Late Night. I remember tuning into Conan this past summer. I had been watching his stint sporadically but had not been as steadfast a devotee as I had anticipated. That night, I deduced why this was the case. He had a few stunt cyclists on his show, doing various tricks and acrobatics off of some ramps. I remember thinking, “This is what happens when you host The Tonight Show.” You suddenly have to deal with insipid acts like jackanapes who can walk on eggs or an animal trainer who will inevitably have the host feign terror upon the unveiling of some enormous reptile.

That Conan was not the Conan with whom I fell in love. My heart still belonged to the man whose sidemen included the likes of Vomiting Kermit and, of course, The Masturbating Bear. I was still hopelessly enraptured with the man who brought unbridled insanity to post-midnight television and constantly delighted my budding teenage sense of humor back in high school. He could be weird, he could be tasteless, he could have skits that redid the whole show as a Victorian comedy of manners or revolved around a German game show where the contestants must rearrange objects in right angles, and it was all kosher. With that extra hour shield between him and decent programming came freedom. Everything that made Conan O’Brien not just very good but great was inextricably tied with him being the host of Late Night.

But this Conan was not gone. Nor was the original’s superiority just a product of me being more tired at 12:30. I saw him return last week: as he knew he was leaving NBC. Sketches became odder and had more of a bite to them. And then, just to prove that the old Conan had come out of hiding, the greatest thing happened: the Masturbating Bear returned to NBC.

This is the Conan we need. The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien was great in theory, but I’m willing to wait another sixty minutes to have the real deal. I don’t know if I could have gone years seeing a weaker Conan on screen, taunting me with brief glimpses of how hilarious he can actually be. Conan O’Brien is not a Tonight Show host. The job may be what he deserves, but it is not what he needs.

Of course, now I just need to hope that we do indeed get the return of such a real deal. We may not know till September, but (maybe I’m just optimistic and delusional) I have a hard time imagining we’ve heard the last of our red-headed friend. Here’s hoping the next network to get him knows to keep him off a leash – for everyone’s benefit.

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