The Funny, the Serious and the Social: A Reflection from the Leno/Conan Controversy

It’s been an odd couple of weeks in the news recently, with a number of articles and video segments frantically reporting on the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno fiasco. “I’m with Coco” fans’ dreams for the future of The Tonight Show were laid to rest when NBC executives officially announced a little over a week ago that they planned to send him and his crew packing. In short: there has been much hype surrounding the Late Night controversy. And not only in the media. The public itself tuned its attention to entertainment’s greatest foible with much fervor.

During his last week on The Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien repeatedly reminded his audience that more important things were going on in the world. But his comments didn’t quell any of the attention directed at The Tonight Show tempest. Despite the fact that, ultimately, Late Night timeslots don’t matter: if the Late Night fiasco isn’t important, how is it that so many people are upset about NBC’s decision? Why on earth does it matter?

To answer these questions, I turned to the endless supply of opinion articles to see what others were saying about Late Night television as a whole. Few have anything to say on The Tonight Show situation in light of its “comedic” or “social” significance. But some have implied that comedy, as a genre, has social persuasion, while also arguing that the fight over Late Night isn’t worth the hubbub due to its current state of mediocrity.

Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe, for instance, writes that Late Night television in its prime had been about social gatherings, community and really stylish entertainment:

There was a time when the whole post-prime-time TV world, ruled by Johnny Carson . . . seemed to have a tinge of glamour. It seemed like a time for adults who had a martini or two in them, with an almost rat-pack feel underneath the network TV restraint of the era.

In accordance with the fact that Late Night television in the golden days had been full of experimentation, originality and creativity, Late Night fashioned a culture that united friends and family beneath the banner of comedy. Late Night television, beginning with Johnny Carson, inspired a whole generation of young people and revolutionized what people talked about around the watercooler.

Yet, for decades prior to Johnny Carson, (and sadly, after him) comedy has largely been a mediocre thing. This problem isn’t new. In 1887 a writer for the New York Times claimed that in his day, contemporary theatrical comedy was “a poor thing.”

This unknown writer adds that “American comedies have generally been feeble and often witless. The truth of life eluded [them].” What is important about his comment is the implication that good comedy reveals something true about humanity and about life on a general scale: “the abundant humor of the play is founded on whims and eccentricities of humanity that are known and understood by everybody.” Recognition and shared experience belongs to comedy.

Why on earth would anyone care about NBC shifting Conan? We care, because, like Shakespeare’s Feste or Touchstone, Conan the court jester reveals truths about our culture and about ourselves. That Tonight Show hour gives us space to laugh about life, and gain perspective over situations and drama we often take too seriously.

Not only do they give us relief from our day-to-day lives, Conan and Johnny Carson inspires us.  Time notes that “Carson was just the right mix of ingenuous Midwesterner and urban sophisticate.” Likewise, O’Brien’s humor is both professional and familiar. He was somehow able to mix the fine things of life with the everyday. Conan, “the smartest guy in the room,” who always lets us in on the joke, reminds us that if we work hard and are kind “amazing things will happen.”

Ultimately, we humans have a natural bent towards comedy. We don’t always have the most sophisticated humor at times, but our basic desire and need to laugh is part of enjoying—and dealing with—life. Why we laugh, furthermore, springs out of our thought, the shape of our culture, our personal experience and perspective, especially as it pertains to our relationships with one another. Comedy personally impacts us because—even if only for a few moments—we gain a slightly new perspective, or familiar insight, on ourselves. ‘