By Geo Ong
I remember the exact moment I realised Conan O’Brien was more than just funny. Before that moment, I simply enjoyed watching him on Late Night, wondering how this guy could say and do the same things every night, and still have them be as funny as the first time he did them. I loved his different brands of humour, from self-deprecating to absurd to intelligent, even literary. (One of my favourite moments was when an empty chair from a previous bit was left on stage, and Conan said, ‘What’s that chair doing there? This looks like some Polish avant-garde play.’)
And then the writers strike happened in 2008. Every show on television shut down, including Conan’s. However, Conan later brought his show back to air, not in defiance of the strike (which he supported on behalf of his writers), but in an effort to pay his non-striking crew members, who were also out of work. He would pay them out of his own pocket until the strike ended.
The strike episodes made up the collective moment I noticed something different about him. No, it wasn’t the beard. Well, it wasn’t just the beard, which was nothing short of impressive, by the way. He strikes me (ha!) as someone who couldn’t grow facial hair. Because he had no writers, he did what he pleased, and to me it seemed his personality shown through more than usual. It almost felt like hanging out with a friend at his house, finding different things to keep us from getting bored.
As his takeover of The Tonight Show drew closer, Conan became the subject of an influx of features, from magazine articles to appearances on Charlie Rose and Inside the Actor’s Studio. I read the articles and watched the specials, and I learned that being funny was serious work to him.
It’s odd, and potentially absurd, but I feel like I know Conan O’Brien. It is this feeling that allows me to feel proud of him. In his countless interviews before his Tonight Show aired, he reassured his fans that he’d do the fifty-year television institution his way. He did. I knew he would, and so did the rest of his fans. What made NBC think he wouldn’t?
Please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism – it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.
—Conan O’Brien, his final Tonight Show monologue, 22 January 2010
Cynicism is a curious thing. I am a cynic. My fellow Urchins would probably agree that cynicism is an Urchin quality. But perhaps our definition of cynicism differs from Conan’s. For us, cynicism fuels us to improve situations. Cynicism fuels our hard work, and it is because of cynicism that we get anything done.
How can I not feel cynical about what NBC did to Conan? They promised him a job for ten years, made him move from his home in New York City (a city he undoubtedly loves) to Los Angeles (a city he most likely would avoid in any other situation), only to pull him off the air because his genuine brand of humour didn’t attract enough ratings.
But Conan tells me not to be cynical. For his sake, I won’t be – at least not too much. Perhaps I don’t need to be, because I know he’s bound for another, better project. Whatever it may be, I look forward to it. It’s near impossible to keep someone like him down. He’s like his hair.
Conan’s intro for the 2006 Emmy Awards
Conan on Inside the Actor’s Studio, aired 26 Jan 2009 (Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the interview in full on the internet. This is the closest I got. Of course, parts are missing because NBC pulled them. Typical. I still encourage you to watch the available clips. If anyone finds the full interview, do let us know!)