A late-night talk-show host occupies many roles at once. He is stand-up comic, he is party host, he is interviewer, he is sketch-comedy utility man, he is national spokesman/judge, he is tie-and-jacketed DIY surrealist. But it wasn’t until Conan O’Brien fought his doomed war against the suits at NBC that a late-night talk-show host came to occupy the following role: the Rebel You Have to Like. For a while (and this was the culmination of Conan’s cult of cooler-than-thou TV-zombie-head cachet), it simply wouldn’t do to think, or say, that Conan O’Brien was anything but the bee’s knees. Or to think, or say, that he’d lost the Tonight Show gig for any other reason than that he’d gone up against The Man — who hadn’t given him enough time! Those ratings were going to shoot up, they really were! — and that The Man had screwed him over. It simply wasn’t welcome on the buzz spectrum to say that maybe you didn’t like Conan O’Brien, or to say that his not working out as the Tonight Show host — a situation that was undeniably poorly handled by the network — had more than a little to do with the nature of his talent, which is to italicize and absurdify every joke to within an inch of its life.
In Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, the lively, revealing, fly-on-the-dressing-room-wall documentary about the traveling roadshow revue that Conan put together to fill up the six months in which he wasn’t allowed, by contract, to appear on television, the 47-year-old O’Brien, gangly and unshaven, arrogant yet abashed, keeps describing how hungry he is to go out on stage, to appear again in front of a live audience. The way he talks about it, it sounds like a generous idea: The frowning NBC brass may have tried to muzzle him, but he’s going to give the people what they want! Except that the more he goes on about how much he craves that connection with an audience, the more you realize that what he’s really talking about is how much they give to him. That’s true, to a degree, of almost any entertainer, and stand-up comics are, of course, a legendarily insecure breed. But O’Brien may be a special case. In Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, he’s the comedian as approval junkie, modest and likable on the surface but compulsively nervous about how he’s coming off. He lets the love from audiences in 32 cities wash over him as a substitute for the love that his evil network daddies didn’t give him. He calls his roadshow the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, but it’s really the Repairing Conan’s Ego Tour.
I bring all of this up because the overwhelming need to be liked that’s front and center in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is also at the center of why I have never been with Coco, or had much patience for him as a talk-show host. He’s obviously a clever and witty-to-the-core entertainer, and when he started out, in 1993, he seemed fresh. He presented himself as the next-generation David Letterman, building on the cheeky irony — the sense of everything in quote marks — that Dave had first brought to late night. If Letterman, in effect, put quote marks around Johnny Carson (Dave made the very idea that he was hosting a big darn TV program faintly ridiculous), Conan, the first late-night talk-show host who had grown up wanting to be a late-night talk-show host, put quote marks around the quote marks. He turned every winking aside, every look! I’m the host! And I’m making a funny! non sequitur, into a gleeful deconstruction — and tongue-in-cheek assertion — of his gawky, overgrown-boy, put-on ringleader role.
And it was exhausting — God, was it exhausting! Born in 1963, Conan was, and always will be, the quintessential Gen X talk-show host, because he developed his two-ton sense of reflexive irony in the ’80s, when irony was just beginning to rule, and it’s still the diesel fuel that powers his act. Every joke, no matter how trivial or “thrown away,” comes with a little sign attached that says: “Check it out, I’m telling a joke!” What I’ve always found so annoying about Conan is that he uses this generational tic of outsize detachment because it seems like what he’s supposed to be doing, but really because it serves as a moment-to-moment billboard for his tender ego, which needs as many feedings as a vampire. (Is that why his handsome moonface is so pale?) His strenuous postmodern prankishness is really a way of keeping the spotlight, at every millisecond, fixed on him.
By now, though, you might well ask: Don’t most late-night talk-show hosts do some variation on this? Well, yes and no. My aversion to Conan O’Brien sounds like a generational rant, but it’s really not. The two Jimmys, Kimmel and Fallon, are both younger than Conan (Kimmel by 4 years, Fallon by 11), and though it’s undeniable that their shows are powered by plenty of free-floating delirium and rib-nudging post-Letterman detachment, both of these guys know how to relax — which, to me (sorry to be so uncool), is an essential part of the pleasure of watching television after midnight. They know how to lay down a comic groove that they don’t have to keep intruding upon. Both of them, in their ways (Kimmel with his mock-abrasive dead-eyed scowl, Fallon with his darting quickness and joy), give the masterly ease of Johnny Carson a 21st-century flow.
I personally think that Fallon, the rare comedian who can wield a skewer with joviality, is destined to be the future king of late night. When O’Brien, in the midst of his Tonight Show debacle, was doing all his faux-rebel squawking, and the media was righteously cheering him along, as if he were the Beatles to Jay Leno’s Pat Boone, it was Jimmy Fallon, hosting the best late-night party around in Conan’s old time slot, who was the elephant in the room: too hip to be detached, delivering all the wit of Conan without the hidden sheetrock of self-aggrandizement. I’m glad that Conan O’Brien is still on the air — he deserves to be — but the cult of Conan represents an overly energized nightly tussle with “convention” that I can’t join, and never could. Conan O’Brien can’t stop trying too hard.
So I know I’m bound to get some flak for having written this, but does anyone else agree with me — that Conan, for all his talent, is a wearying entertainer? And what did you think of him in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman