On his final episode as host of The Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien ’85 used some of his last few moments to comfort his disaffected fans. “All I ask,” he said, is to “not be cynical. I hate cynicism…it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere.” Indeed, although Conan had many reasons to be cynical that night, his ratings weren’t one of them. Conan’s farewell not only eclipsed Letterman that evening but every program in primetime as well.
What makes his final show’s numbers so extraordinary is that they’re the climax of a hot streak. In the two weeks preceding NBC’s removal of Conan from the 11:35 p.m. slot due to his disappointing ratings (and the failure of The Jay Leno Show), Conan’s average ratings were never higher. Two Fridays ago, Conan’s viewership was fifty percent larger than it had been the entire season. As the New York Times noted, “if even a small fraction of the…viewers who flocked to Mr. O’Brien’s show last week had turned up regularly in his earlier ratings results, he would almost surely still be hosting.”
How did this happen? Part of the credit, to be sure, lies with the efforts of “Team Coco,” a zealous faction of fans who protested in support of the late-night host throughout the country. But even more, Conan’s show underwent a substantive change. Simply put, he stopped being nice. It was only when he injected his jokes with venom and directed them at a relevant target that his ratings soared.
In Conan’s last few weeks, because of his fury at NBC, his jokes were bursting with the cynicism that he cautioned his followers to avoid. For example, he recently explained that as part of his severance agreement he had to “return the Etch-a-Sketch [his] contract was written on.” He also informed his viewers that they should believe NBC’s pledge to end this fiasco before the Winter Olympics because “when NBC says something, you can take that to the bank.” Furthermore, because Conan’s name was always in the news, his strikes at NBC were always topical. This type of humor stood in contrast to his usually irreverent and irrelevant style, such as firing wax replicas of movie stars out of cannons and knocking over a domino stack of Domino’s pizza employees.
The country’s extremely positive reception to these relevant and subversive bits indicates why Conan only lasted for seven months. The late-night shows that air right after the 11 p.m. news (The Tonight Show, The Late Show, and Saturday Night Live) have long served the role of ridiculing the public figures and news headlines. People flock to these programs not only for their silly sketches but also for their ability to verbalize the discontent of the American people through humor. Leno first overtook Letterman in the ratings when he famously asked Hugh Grant, who had been recently arrested for propositioning a prostitute, “what the hell were you thinking?” Letterman scored big with his controversial joke about Sarah Palin’s daughter.
Conan, however, was far too polite to attack public figures. His absurd and non sequitur humor worked exceedingly well at 12:35 p.m., but by refusing to change his style for 11:35 p.m., he implicitly rejected the late-night tradition. But hopefully, with a contract barring his return to television until September, Conan will use the time to pick up the pieces of his franchise and muster up the confidence to arm his jests next time with the caustic social commentary that America has always looked to late night to provide.
Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.