I go on vacation for a week and NBC starts making decisions without my approval.
Conan O’Brien is the wrong choice as a successor to Jay Leno on the Tonight Show.
OBrien is a good comic. But he lacks the single most important quality required for the Tonight Show post: smoothness. Johnny Carson wasn’t very smart, very gifted or even very funny. But he was the picture of self possession. David Letterman by some appearances is smart, gifted and funny but what establishes his position as a late night host and a fixture of contemporary culture is his aplomb.
Why does self possession count for so much on late night TV? Its because whatever else happens on a show, we want to know we have put the last moments of the day in the hands of a man who is in control of things. Jokes, be damned. Late night television is the adult equivalent of a bed time story. It is designed to make the world seem ok. It is designed to assure us that we depart this world for the little death called sleep with our soul or at least the world in order.
O’Brien is quirky and its a physical quirkinesshe looks as if he wants to crawl out of his skin. He growls, he mugs, he twitches. It’s shtick, to be sure, but it is an unsettled performance and not at all self possessed. O’Brien is not quite as bad as, say, the late Sam Kinison screaming us to sleep. But hes not much better.
So O’Brien is wrong. Apparently, NBC executives are thrilled that the average age of O’Briens viewers is a full decade younger than Lenos. No doubt they think they have made the hip and edgy choice. But edgy is unsettling, and unsettling does not work on late night TV.
Now, its possible that O’Brien intends to transform himself for the job as thoroughly as Leno did. This was one of the great acts of compromise of pop culture. Leno was one of the really funny comics to come up in a newly competitive era of comedy. To take the Tonight Show post, he dumbed himself down.
More to the point, he smoothed himself out. Remember his early performances on the Tonight Show stage: elbows pumping, head bobbing, he was a snickering, ingratiating mess. Not any more. Now his performance is as smooth as the jokes are predictable. Ah, the warm bath of bad comedy. Nothing difficult here. "Now I lay me down to sleep.
O’Brien can dumb down the jokes, but can he smooth out the performance? Can he master the "palaver" effect: that air of self congratulation that says, "I think so well of myself, I don’t care how bad this joke is, or what you think of me for telling it?" I don’t think so. OBrien doesnt’ start till 2009, but I predict he will be gone by 2010.
I am not sure whether friends of "This blog sits at" will recognize "Now I lay me down to sleep." In 1950s Canada, they sent us to bed with a little prayer:
"Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
And if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.