Conan and Leno and Ethics, Oh My!

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I enjoy Conan O’Brien more than Jay Leno and that clearly influences how I feel about this whole late-night debacle. He’s who I watched when I stayed up late in high school to do homework and he’s who I watched in college when the night was just beginning and he has been who I watched in my young adulthood. When he took over The Tonight Show, I was thrilled, and when his first musical guest was Pearl Jam – my favorite musicians of all time – I knew he understood his demographic exactly.

Or, more accurately, me.

When Conan started making high schoolers and college students laugh in 1993, Pearl Jam was the biggest band in the universe. Now here they were, in 2009, kicking off a new Tonight Show. And that’s not the only musician I can link Conan to, either. Check out this list of the guests and musical guests from his days on Late Night. For me, I take note of some of my favorites, all appearing in just the first two seasons of the show: Radiohead, Blur, Reverend Horton Heat, Weezer, Jars of Clay, They Might Be Giants, Meat Puppets, Better Than Ezra, The Goo Goo Dolls, Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories, and don’t forget Ben Folds Five made its national television debut on Late Night. ((According to the link, this was on December 26, 1995. I wonder if they sang “Brick” with it’s line “Six a.m. Day after Christmas…”)) As for Pearl Jam, blogger Chris Hanaka recalls that they only appeared on Letterman (SNL aside) until they were the premiere musical guests for The Tonight Show in 2009, and I’d argue appearing on Letterman, Conan’s Late Night predecessor, is miles closer to Conan than Leno.

And what of The Tonight Show’s musical guests from that era who I enjoy and are still kickin’ it old school? Pearl Jam, Green Day, Alice In Chains, Incubus, Wilco, Chris Cornell, The Flaming Lips, Weezer, The Brian Setzer Orchestra. And that’s in the show’s first seven months. Check out the whole list here. ((If you ask me, the only real misstep was Creed, but I suppose that’s pretty subjective.)) These bands scream me. I cannot recall musical artists who appeared on Leno because I either tuned out before they came on or I didn’t hear of anyone who really compelled me to watch (or it’s possible I was just unaware or am missing artists in my mind). This roster and the previous Late Night roster help me know Conan is shooting for my demographic and that’s okay with me.

But it’s not just the musicians. I think about the relationships Conan clearly has with creative comedy artists I respect. Stephen Colbert, David Cross, Snoop Dogg, ((Come on, you know Snoop sees himself as a performer, not as a rapper, and that comedy is a big part of his deal.)) Tina Fey, Zach Galafinakis, Jeff Garlin, Ricky Gervais, Bob Odenkirk, Patton Oswalt, Amy Poehler, Robet Smigel, Spinal Tap, Jon Stewart. They say that one is the company in which they keep. While Leno is certainly good friends with Seinfeld, I wonder if that goes back to years and years of friendship, which is different than mutual professional respect.

I think about Conan’s comedy roots in improv with The Groundlings, writing for Saturday Night Live, writing for The Simpsons. I think of his writing for The Harvard Lampoon and it’s other notable comedy alumni like Doug Kenney who wrote Animal House (and was the nerdy guy who shouts, “Well, what the hell we supposed to do, ya moron?!”), BJ Novak who writes and acts for The Office, and a slew of writers for The Simpsons, Futurama, SNL, Letterman, Seinfeld, NewsRadio, The Office, and 30 Rock.

And I think of the show. I love his show, absolutely love it. It’s well-written, well-performed, well-paced, and has the right amount of edge to challenge its audience. To this last point, while comedy is subjective, I feel that challenging the audience is precisely something any worthwhile comedy should do. So clearly, this all influences where I stand on this NBC late-night debacle.


I’m also inluenced by my ethics. The way Conan is being treated simply doesn’t appear to be ethical. I know there are a lot of ins and outs to consider (i.e. contracts and legal jargon) and there’s information we the public don’t know about. And yet, from the information I’ve read, it really appears there’s backpeddling and doublespeak and fear going on here. More than that, it feels shady. It feels like NBC and Leno are trying to pull something, trying not to tip their hand, trying to take advantage of technicalities in the face of overwhelming practicality. The reason I feel like this is simple and unfortunate: I’ve been NBC. I’ve been Leno. I’ve been unethical.

I’ve tried to pull stuff and won. I’ve tried to withhold information rather than be transparent. I’ve taken advantage of technicalities in my favor and to my preference instead of considering others. I am not yet 100% perfect in the ethics department and there are still some days when it’s hard not to take advantage of the easier choice, which in turn means to take advantage of the person or situation. Maybe you’ve found yourself in an ethical dilemma at one time or another, too?

Whether you have or not, I don’t bring this up to engender empathy by baring my soul, simply to point out that my sense of justice has been tempered by reflection on how I, in the past, have played with justice. Don’t try to kid a kidder, and all of that. I’m not proud of it and yet by being on both sides of ethics, I have a strong appreciation for the importance of justice and it’s place in my vocational calling. The other thing it does is make it easier for me to recognize skewed ethics when I see them. I’ve acted shady and this move by NBC and Leno is clearly shady. When I was shady, I always figured out what I was doing before it was all over. Many times it stopped me, every once in a while, it didn’t. I think NBC and Leno have figured out they’re being shady and I’m not sure what it will take for them to stop themselves. If I was Comcast, looking to buy NBC, I would be really upset right now (well, as upset as a corporate entity can be).

This ethical point is why when people bring up who’s funnier or whose show they prefer, the issue gets muddied. That’s not what matters. Even with all the preference and reasoning I laid out above, it still doesn’t matter. Comedy is subjective, ethics are not.

That Conan O’Brien would walk away from The Tonight Show on principle is a move I have the utmost professional respect for and I wish him and his staff well. I like to think if the roles were reversed, that Leno was gettign taken for an ethical trip instead of Conan, I’d feel the same way. Speaking of writers who I respect, John August has decided 2010 is his year to bid farewell to schadenfruede. It’s something more people could try to do in this world, and that’s where ethics meet comedy.

Or maybe it’s because we’re both redheads, I don’t know.

Your thoughts?


8 thoughts on “Conan and Leno and Ethics, Oh My!”

  1. Completely ignoring your very welcome ethics discussion…

    I got into Ben Folds (and the Five) specifically because I saw them perform “Song for the Dumped” on Conan. Folds did some now classic running of the microphone across the piano strings. Robert Sledge set down a beat in the middle of the song by unplugging his bass and “playing” his amp percussively, touching the pickup to his hand. Then it got hectic and Ben finished with throwing his chair into the piano.

    I used to have a video of it, but have since lost it. I do have an MP3 of the performance, however. I suspect this was the debut song, but I’m probably wrong. It was probably “Brick.”

    Conan also featured the Shatner & Folds in a couple collaborative performances, including one with Joe Jackson (covering “Common People”). Who else was giving Shatner play for his most recent, and frankly great, album?

  2. I have that MP3 of “Song for the Dumped,” too, and it begins with Conan saying something to the effect of Ben Folds Five had made their national television debut on this very program and now here they are with a new song. I’ll have to check when I get home.

  3. Interesting. Here’s what I found myself thinking the other day: NBC is being WAY too reactive. They have a really good thing in Conan O Brien and the Tonight Show. I even don’t mind Jimmy Fallon as much on the Late Show (I used to be a real Fallon hater in the beginning, but probably just because Conan did such a good job). Conan is the new guy on his time slot going up against Letterman. Wait until Letterman retires and watch O’Brien kill whoever fills that slot on CBS. It does seem to be over-reactive at the very least for NBC to consider getting rid of Conan and bringing Leno back after just 7 months. I always thought that if a show was bombing you cancelled said suck bomb–not use it to replace a different show that’s having better success. Hmmm.

  4. I agree with you about the ratings, Sarah. I’ve often pointed out how twenty years ago, then-NBC programming executive Brandon Tartikoff gave a few other now-classic shows that had low initial ratings a chance to get off the ground and find their audience: St. Elsewhere, Family Ties, Cheers, and Seinfeld. Of course, the people I’ve pointed this out to often say right back that it is not twenty years ago and Jeff Zucker is not Brandon Tartikoff.

  5. Also, didn’t Conan get completely panned for the first year or so of Late Night? And after that he built a monster in the time slot. How can NBC not recognize this?

  6. It’s frustrating how Conan’s earlier show (Late Night) were poorly documented. I’m pretty sure that among his musical guests late 90’s were the British band Pulp. I was just 12 or 13 then and was into Blur so I was pretty stoked some Britpop band was performing on Conan. I could be wrong but I do remember my mom saying that the singer looked and moved like the host(Conan). Pretty sure it was Pulp and not Shatner + Joe Jackson doing a cover of Common People.
    I missed the chance of asking Jarvis about it when he guested (taped appearance) on Fallon last July ?(I’m too sissy to approach him) but a staff told me it was likely Letterman’s show not Conan. She does not remember having him at 6A studio.

  7. Actually, Pulp wouldn’t have covered “Common People” since it’s a song they wrote!

    I distinctly remember watching Shatner, Jackson, and Ben Folds play “Common People” on Conan. I can’t find any evidence, because NBC ruthlessly protects 6-year-old video of their talk shows. But there are comments about on the Internet.

    OMG – I’m wrong. This was on LENO!!!!

    O’Brien has a clear love for the Shatner/Folds combo.


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