With late-night talk show host (and greatest White House Correspondents Dinner emcee since Don Imus) Jimmy Kimmel finally bumping Nightline and moving up half an hour to ABC’s 11:35 pm timeslot opposite Jay Leno and David Letterman, the showbiz media is collectively asking the same question: will Kimmel succeed in the timeslot where Conan O’Brien miserably failed?
While this line of coverage is predictably unfair to Kimmel, a hardworking but little-acclaimed radio veteran with an anti-authoritarian streak who has produced strong ratings in each of his television ventures, it also reminds us that Conan O’Brien, the Late Night host of our childhoods, is still alive. And he’s still on television.
His current irrelevance confirms one of the great truths of the American capitalist system: faux-populist liberal marketing campaigns and media spin cannot trick the average consumer into buying a product that for most intents and purposes does not actually exist.
Currently drawing about one million viewers a night on TBS, Conan still receives effusive public support from his bosses, who seem convinced that his low ratings are counterbalanced by nebulous “social media success” and “youth appeal.” He even scores glowing cover-story puff pieces in publications like Rolling Stone and the Hollywood Reporter, which treat his TBS show more like a runaway youth-demo phenomenon and less like what it actually is: a tedious, sad, and outmoded vanity project, like late-period Jackie Gleason for the Twitter set.
Though TBS chest-thumpingly declared that “Conan can do whatever he wants here” when they signed him at the height of his 2010 controversy, O’Brien’s hour-long cable iteration is virtually the same as his previous NBC efforts, albeit with some hip new correspondents cycling into the segments to pander to the youth. Much was made of the fact that Will Ferrell announced the existence of Anchorman 2 on an episode of Conan, because apparently it’s still the mid-2000’s and people like Ferrell and Jack Black are still big-money gets for the show.
The show’s website and social media operations are stamped with the logo for “Team Coco,” which O’Brien’s staff adopted during the rift with Leno and NBC, during which O’Brien did more to unfairly demonize American capitalism than any Massachusetts celebrity outside of Elizabeth Warren (“These people need to get a grip,” Bill Maher said of Conan supporters. “You have no idea how show business works and in this case it’s not that different from life in general.”)
O’Brien recently explained his social media strategy to Piers Morgan at a Boston media convention, saying that one of his goals is to use coverage on websites like the Huffington Post and Vulture to drive traffic to his program. No wonder then that he’s staged a same-sex marriage on his broadcast and referenced Salon during guest interviews. In supposedly changing with the times, Conan’s audience has shifted from jaded Gen-X ‘90s kids to pampered suburbanite millennials, with the desperate youth-i-ness of his media strategy no doubt repulsive to all but the lamest kinds of youth.
The press doesn’t usually say “miserable failure” (to borrow Norm MacDonald’s phrase) in regard to Conan’s seven-month stint hosting the Tonight Show from June 2009 to January 2010. The narrative on that little imbroglio was a lot more favorable for Conan, with the history books reflecting that he got screwed, shafted, hoodwinked and bamboozled by the sleazy suits at NBC and the Nixonian scourge that is Jay Leno. Remember when they moved Leno to primetime and killed Conan’s lead-in, then tried to bump him back to 12:00, before cutting him loose and prompting his anti-corporate hissy fit that presaged the Occupy movement by about a year?
Forget that Conan’s Late Night ratings at 12:30 had only been a half-point higher than Craig Ferguson’s, raising internal NBC doubts about the transition before Conan ever moved to 11:30. Forget that Conan’s Tonight Show numbers against Letterman and Nightline during the summer of 2009 – before Leno went to primetime – were disastrous, with Conan steering a first-place program into third place with less than three million viewers a night. Forget, too, that Conan was handed a $40 million payout to leave NBC after the unmitigated failure of his Tonight Show experiment.
Forget all of that. No, according to millions of entitled little Participation Trophy-winners across Young America, Conan was nothing less than a cause celebre. Overnight, he became an icon to self-centered Gen-Y monsters everywhere.
When Letterman lost the Tonight Show to Leno in 1993, he told his agent Mike Ovitz to get him a CBS contract and his own Broadway studio and he promptly beat his former network in the ratings for two straight years. Conan, on the other hand, grew a beard and pouted alongside his wife in a humiliating Sixty Minutes interview filmed in his living room.
His “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” live tour wasn’t all that funny, either. Reported negotiations with Fox soon fizzled, and he ended up signing a contract with TBS, the longtime home of World Championship Wrestling.
Two and a half years after the One Percent folded up his tent and kicked him out of the park, Conan appeared on Letterman in June 2012 to embarrass himself even further.
“You know Jay’s watching right now,” Conan blustered as the studio audience tried to remember what exactly happened back in 2010. “He’s getting a live feed in a satellite truck right now!”
It was a moment of profound indignity, comparable to Keith Olbermann’s Late Show appearance a month earlier but even more pathetic by virtue of the amount of time that had passed since the controversy he was referencing.
He seemed thoroughly disinterested in his TBS show, and when Letterman asked him about it Conan said something about how rewarding it is “working for Turner.” Ah, so, you see, Conan is a very important business executive who works for Turner, not a TBS host losing to his own Late Night replacement Jimmy Fallon in the ratings.
And why should Conan get any ratings with his hour-long TBS retread? He has previously mocked Kimmel’s comedy partner Adam Carolla (and by extension the entire poorly-reviewed Kimmel-Carolla brand) in interviews, but at least Kimmel and Carolla delivered solid ratings hits when they were on basic cable: The Man Show, Crank Yankers, The Andy Milonakis Show. They created unique products and consumers ate them up. What has Conan delivered on basic cable, besides a bunch of “New Media” spin to distract from the fact that he’s just re-packaging his same old routine?
Why should we listen to Conan’s tired Mitt Romney jokes when we can watch Jon Stewart stage an entire faux-newscast? Who cares what Conan has to say about Kim Kardashian when Chelsea Handler is poring through each page of People magazine and Us Weekly? What product, exactly, is Conan selling us for an hour a night four nights a week?
For years, Conan’s bratty sense of humor seemed rebellious only within the context of network television, when he was running around 30 Rock playing pranks on Al Roker or Brian Williams. His shtick, after all, was predicated solely on the fact that he had a job at NBC in the first place. When struggling through interviews with the B-list TV stars of the 12:30 guest pool, he got laughs by making it all seem mandatory. Rather than go hip and topical like Baby Boomers Letterman and Leno, Conan played the earnest, put-upon middle manager trying to make do with the cue cards he’d been dealt. No talk show host in television history had ever leaned so heavily on mocking the late-night format.
To build an entire new media entity around that shtick should have struck any fair-minded person as a terrible idea. After all, how can Conan ridicule the format of a show that he created himself? How can he feign boredom during B-list interviews when he’s the only one booking the guests? When he tugs at his collar when a monologue joke bombs, what’s to stop people at home from reaching for the remote and leaving Channel 16?
Separated from the standards and practices of the network TV behemoth, Conan not only lacks an edge. He lacks a reason to exist.
Will Jimmy Kimmel succeed where Conan failed? Probably. With no Harvard degree, doe-eyed press coverage, or overstated “youth” media strategies to protect him, Kimmel will simply go with the strategy that has served him well thus far: create content that people want to watch.
Patrick Howley is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire