The Eternal Reliability of Conan O'Brien


My television viewing habits are shaped irrevocably by all manner of weird psychological issues connected to my nearly two decade stint as a staff writer for The A.V Club and then The Dissolve, some of which involved writing television reviews for an audience that seemed to consist mostly of people who hated the way I wrote about television, hated my opinions, hated my personality and writing style and couldn’t wait to head over to The A.V Club the moment a new review dropped to share this intense, soul-consuming dissatisfaction with my work with like-minded souls. 

It gave me a fucking complex, is what it did. I came to associate shows I eagerly volunteered to review because I loved them and wanted to share my enthusiasm for them with the world with the free-floating anxiety, depression and alienation that characterized the end of my time at The A.V Club.

Nothing cured me of having a deep, intense and passionate investment in a television show quite like writing about it week after week for a hostile audience. The Office is perhaps the biggest example. I used to love that show so much that I made a special point of watching every deleted scene from every season, at least until I lost interest in the show completely.

Then came a point where I came to think of The Office primarily as work, stressful, thankless, frustrating work and I lost my taste for it completely. I didn’t watch any of the post-Carrell seasons and haven’t so much as caught a rerun in over a decade. The same is true of Saturday Night Live. That used to be my shit when I was a young man. Then I was all, “Hey, I’ll write about new Saturday Night Live and classic episodes! Surely my love for this venerable comedy institution will survive having to write about it week after week, to the anger and displeasure of everyone!” 


The only Saturday Night Live episode I’ve watched in the past decade was the one Donald Trump hosted and that was for historical, political reasons having next to nothing to do with entertainment. Watching Donald Trump attempt to do comedy only confirmed my conviction that Saturday Night Live should exist only in the past tense for me, a show I used to watch and care about that I sure as shit do not watch anymore. 

Similarly, if you ask me what my favorite all-time show is I will answer, without hesitation, The Simpsons. I still fucking love The Simpsons but I associate it too strongly with failure and anxiety to ever be able to innocently enjoy it the way I once did. 

Christ, I had a column called The Simpsons Decade over at Rotten Tomatoes about 1990s comedy and the central role The Simpsons played in defining and perfecting the meta-humor of the Clinton Era that was such a pronounced, surreal failure that it was put down before I had a chance to write about The Simpsons for it. 

I don’t watch many of the shows I used to love for various reasons, most professional and psychological in nature but I’ve never lost my love for Conan O’Brien. It helps that I didn’t write about him for The A.V Club beyond the occasional interview or appreciation. 

Conan O’Brien is my television comfort food. There’s something wonderfully reassuring, even soothing about the familiarity of Conan, about those distinctive, gloriously manic rhythms and exquisite, life-affirming goofiness. 


I’ve been on a fucking journey with Conan over the past quarter century. We all have.  He entered the public consciousness as a weird-looking no-hoper with an improbable name who functioned as a glib, easy walking punchline his first season on the air more than a television personality only to grow and evolve into someone so popular and beloved that he was given the most prestigious and high-profile spot in all of late night: The Tonight Show. 

When Conan got the big gig I was proud of him the way you would be proud of a sister or son or relative, not a complete stranger whose comedy you enjoy. In the great late night war between Leno and Conan he was the clear hero and Leno the lazy, pandering villain. 

Then he lost the big gig and left the world of network television for the lower paying, lower profile but less demanding and impossible realm of basic cable. One of the things I love about Conan in its current, half-hour incarnation is how Conan really seems to have nothing to lose. The stakes are infinitely lower than they were when Conan’s feud with Leno was making headlines. Conan doesn’t seem worried about attracting a bigger or more mainstream audience. He now seems concerned only with amusing himself and his audience. 

There’s something beautiful about that. It’s like Conan opted out of all the competition and stress that comes with angling for the big brass ring so he could do his show on his terms for his audience. I don’t even mind that Conan is pretty much apolitical. With any other late night host, I would consider it cowardly and a cop-out to not confront the Fascist in the White House but it seems perfectly in character for Conan. His world is a world of goofiness and fun, child-like whimsy and tomfoolery. 


I love that Conan is an escape from the inexorable horror of everyday life. I watch Conan to get the hell away from that orange monster. Trump does not belong in the television sandbox that is Conan any more than Conan belongs in a White House press briefing. 

I also like that Conan is now only a half hour long because as much as I love Conan, I’ve never had much use for the forty minutes or so of his old shows that don’t involve either a monologue or comedy bits. I’ve never been a fan of talk show interviews no matter who is doing them so I don’t mind that Conan has cut the half hour of his show I never watched in the first place. 

I also appreciate that Conan’s podcast has the most heartbreakingly relatable title this side of Wrestling With Depression: Conan Needs a Friend. I’ve never actually listened to his podcast because change is scary and I’m so used to loving Conan in the television format that I’m not sure about branching out into a purely audio medium. 


The only thing I find perplexing about Conan these days is his wardrobe. I honestly don’t have any idea why he wears so many jean jackets, beyond perhaps a desire to show Leno that he can rock denim just as aggressively as his old nemesis but in this case at least the clothes do not make the man: that big, beautiful, ridiculous brain does, with more than a little help from his equally enormous, wonderfully expressive body. 

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