If you are exposed to any media outlet at all during the course of your daily life, you are doubtless aware of the debacle wracking our country's late night television programs. Essentially, the improbable string of mismanagement and blatant idiocy that is the management of the National Broadcasting Company reached a fever pitch that looks like it will drive Conan O'Brien from the network in an effort to reinstall Jay Leno as the host of the Tonight Show. This, of course, begs two questions: 1) how and, more interestingly, 2) what does this mean?
First, how did this happen? Essentially, because NBC President Jeff Zucker is a complete idiot and a humorless asshole. He has managed to drive NBC's ratings through the floor; the network is currently in fourth place behind CBS, ABC and Fox. FOX?!? Let me get this straight: the same television station that has housed such cash cows as Seinfeld, Cheers, Friends, Frasier, Will and Grace and The Cosby Show, to name just the sitcoms, currently can't draw more viewers than fucking American Dad? How did it get this bad?
Zucker was stupid enough to give Leno, who hasn't been funny since the first Bush was president, ANOTHER comedy show on the network. At 10pm. In the time slot when the same people who like Jay Leno (i.e., old people) like to watch shows about moody detectives who find semen in corpses and then sleep with each other. Everyone whose paycheck doesn't have GE on it knew that this was a terrible plan because no one wants to watch an hour long talk show, local news and then two more hour long talk shows. Especially when the first one is hosted by an unfunny tool. (Don't get me started on Jimmy Fallon).
Perhaps this is unfair. Leno seems like a mildly decent guy...but he is painfully devoid of comic talents at this point. Patton Oswalt does an excellent job explaining the problem in the linked piece, so I'll refer you there for a better explanation of Leno's problem. As Oswalt points out, it is baffling that Leno is so hell-bent on hosting a show that doesn't even seem to thrill him. The guy still does stand-up most weekends in Vegas, for God's sake. And why in the hell was NBC willing to give O'Brien the show just to bail on him after seven months? It took him nearly two years to make Late Night into a viable comedic force; in fact, he was starting to hit his stride now with the new Tonight Show.
More interesting than the how, though, is what all this means about society. The short answer, of course, is nothing. Late night talk shows really have no meaning outside of themselves, and possibly none at all. Since I am a profoundly shallow person, however, I spend a lot of my time reading into the nonsense and trash that comprises most pop culture. The Tonight Show dust-up, then, is representative of the culture clash between people my age (Millennials, or whatever the fuck we're supposed to be called) and the Baby Boomers.
I know very few people over the age of forty who actively like Conan O'Brien. Most often I'd hear his brand of humor dismissed by Boomers as "weird" and/or "creepy." His blend of self-deprecation, absurdism and eccentric fearlessnes was directed squarely at an audience younger than Jay's. Leno plays relatively safe, broad, toothless comedy that flirts with edginess as successfully as you'd flirt with Giselle. Leno's shows were like a glass of warm milk: dull, quotidian and ultimately nauseating in its treacliness. O'Brien, even at his most outre, was at least doing something interesting. I'd rather watch an interesting failure than a boring success.
Beyond their comedic styles, though, each man represents a different generation. Leno is, metaphorically, a symbol of weak-kneed conservatism. He stands for soft peddling cowardice that refuses to move forward merely out of fear, both of the unknown and of failure. While I am myself not inclined toward a conservative outlook, I could at least respect a philosophy that was rooted in something other than ignorance and fear. It is the Leno-esque tendency to resist change out of timidity, however, that I find both morally and intellectually repugnant.
O'Brien, on the other hand, represents the same progressive spirit that helped sweep Obama into the White House last fall. The desire for something new, something different and something brazenly original is something that I see in people my age all the time. While I despise the Family Guy model that equates difference and offensiveness with comedy and celebrates "randomness" (UGH) which some people would liken to O'Brien's comedy, I think that Conan goes deeper than this. His comedy, no matter how hard to pin down, is rooted in some sort of realism. There is heart at the center of his jokes. He's not afraid to fail--which he does, sometimes with disturbing frequency--but this ultimately led to some of the most compelling television of the past decade. This same desire for experimentation and progress came to the fore as twentysomethings made their first political strides in the fall of 2008 to elect the nation's first black President over an old white guy. The night of the election in New York City is one of the most singularly electric experiences in which I have ever taken part. Along with the new President, 2009 would bring a new Tonight Show as part of my generation coming of age. 2009 was supposed to be the annus mirabilis of the young, urban liberal. The technicolor horrorshow of W.'s America and the aggressive mediocrity of Leno's Tonight Show would be swept away by the inevitable tide of Progress. The hell with flying cars, the Future had arrived!
(Just in case you're curious, in this stupid analogy, Letterman represents the Ted Kennedy liberals, who will end up on the right side of history but, in their time, were too cantankerous and bitter about their inability to win America's heart away from its perpetual love affair with averageness.)
Of course, now that 2009 is behind us, everything has stalled. While I realize how stupid it is to compare a comedian to a politician, look at the similarities: a young, hip, lanky stranger comes on the scene promising change (in Conan's case, implicitly, Obama's, explicitly). A better world geared toward the youth movements that will, inevitably, come into positions of power in the future. Their grey-haired forebears will be nothing but a bad memory and a reminder of how not to run things. Yet, as soon as both O'Brien and Obama (!) took their respective places, rear-guard sniping began. The former masters, enraged at the fact that they were no longer in power and unable to gracefully endure their tenure as the underdogs, began a program of bitter recrimination that aimed to undermine their replacements. When Conan lagged in the ratings, when Obama failed to instantly fix the economy and end two wars while simultaneously crushing al-Qaeda, their detractors cried foul. Where is the difference? Where is the change you promised us?, they howled. WHY DID YOU NOT INSTANTLY FIX EVERYTHING?!?! Republicans/the Middle Aged held their enemies to standards that no one could live up to, merely to mock and belittle the legitimate efforts of Obama/O'Brien.
And so, Baby Boomers, J'accuse. You mollycoddled your children, giving them (well, us) a sense of false, scumbag entitlement. You removed all the obstacles in life that should have toughened us, mentally and physically. You bought into the bullshit pop psychology, read the bullshit parenting books and tried to be our friends instead of our parents. You made monsters of us and then scratched your heads when we came out as irresponsible jerkwads. In spite of this, we finally pulled our collective head out of our collective ass and found causes to champion and leaders to believe in, you threw a tantrum and decided you didn't want to have to stop being the boss. Once we were finally ready to take the bowl of shit that passed for a world that you were leaving us and make it better, you were too selfish to loosen your death grip.
So here we are in 2010. O'Brien is almost certainly leaving the Tonight Show within the next week to make way for a host that nobody under the age of fifty likes. Health care reform, the biggest item on Obama's legislative to-do list, is both so wizened as to be a shadow of its former self and mired in a congressional clusterfuck so petty and partisan that it makes the cast of The Hills look demure. Beyond that, Obama committed what I'd call a pretty severe misstep in his reactionary, overblown response to a Nigerian man burning his own wiener off. In an effort to not appear "soft" on terror (you know, like a Democrat) Obama has criticized that whipping boy of American politics, the intelligence community, and all but instituted a program of aggressive profiling. This, of course, both undermines his goal of convincing the Arab world we're not at war with Islam and basically gives terrorists our playbook. Millennials (UGH), we have to do something.
Apparently, the Boomers aren't going to let us have anything. We're going to have to take it. We're going to have to refuse to listen to their asinine complaints and backward-looking philosophy. We're going to have to assert ourselves like we actually have spines. We're going to have to stand up and act like adults for once, instead of teenagers with ten thousand dollars of disposable income and a drinking problem.
Boomers, you have to let go. The thing about being alive is that one day you will die. When that day comes, we, your children, will take over. Begin phasing yourselves out now. Trust us. The world will be ours one day--let us shape it as we like. You were right when you were young and you railed against the Eisenhower generation. Now remember what it was like to be young and let us have our turn. And our own goddamn comedy shows.
There are those who will say that Conan's reaction has been petty and overblown. Imagine, however, that you were promised the host gig on a venerable franchise. Before you'd even been allowed to truly settle in, however, your ratings are deemed too low and the network decides to tamper with a franchise that has been unchanged for more than half a century. You'd be pretty fucking pissed too. And look at the consequences: as it stands, Conan will move to Fox, Leno will briefly return to his old show and Jimmy Fallon, the spineless twerp who has kept his mouth shut the whole time, will end up inheriting the Tonight Show. The political analog here is, of course, playing Hail to the Chief every time Jeb Bush enters the room.