Farewell to the spotlight, again

Reflecting on Conan O'Brien's latest departure from late-night and the shifting sands of humor

The last time Conan O’Brien left television, it felt like a much bigger deal.

Please do not mistake this as any form of criticism of or slight toward O’Brien, who—between his decades-long presence in late-night television and his key role as a writer in the golden era of The Simpsons—is one of my all-time favorite figures in the world of comedy. The difference in reaction to his two departures feels stark, though. 

In 2010, O’Brien stepped down from his role as host of NBC’s Tonight Show after only nine months in late-night comedy’s biggest job. He’d rightly refused requests from network executives to accept a change to the show’s long-established timeslot, requests made in an attempt to accommodate his immediate predecessor, Jay Leno, in making a wholly-unnecessary return to a spotlight he’d relinquished just months earlier. The popular reaction, at least among internet-dwelling younger viewers, was a huge outpouring of support for O’Brien and disdain for Leno. It dominated a moment in the cultural conversation, spurring online campaigns to #freecoco.

(Somewhat embarrassingly, my very first actual tweets on Twitter were bad hashtag-jokes about how much I disliked Jay Leno. I stand by the sentiment if not the medium.)

O’Brien lost the battle, but won the war, it seemed—he departed Tonight after an emotional, celebrity-laden final week of shows, then embarked on a theatrical comedy tour while planning his next move. Would he find a new late-night desk? Would he return to writing? Would he forge some wholly new path for himself? Despite having spent seventeen years as a late-night host, he’d always seemed to exist both inside and out of the world—his work a sweetly absurd, letting-you-in-on-the-joke mockery of the format he labored within. It was a medium he clearly felt comfortable with, however, as evidenced by his prompt return to it later that year. He’d continue to send up the format while working firmly within it.

It felt fresh for a long time, until it didn’t.

Again, this isn’t a criticism; Conan, the TBS show that O’Brien resurfaced with a few months after his dramatic breakup with NBC, was always very good when I would watch it. It offered a seamless continuation of the same well-honed comedy chops O’Brien and co-host Andy Richter had displayed during their NBC years. It faded from the forefront of the conversation, though, and the show’s end last week garnered a fraction of the attention of his previous departure from the screen.

That’s not O’Brien’s fault—times simply changed, and there’s simply less need to send up a medium that’s lost its relevance.

In the comedy landscape of 2021, the mere idea of late-night television feels impossibly quaint and painfully reactive, and the reality is even worse: familiar hosts in suits re-telling jokes that were on Twitter four days prior in the slowed-down and sanded-smooth cadence of a reply guy echoing your own joke back at you. The original bits, insofar as I can use that word, feel desperately-calibrated to catch the eye of algorithms and driven to death the moment they do.

(My own personal concept of hell is not too far off from being stuck inside a car with a karaoke-singing James Corden, but the metrics must be telling them that someone likes it, because they keep sticking him back in that damned car.) 

Late-night television has ceased to be a primary source for most people to find humor, because there’s just so many other places to find it, and grabbing the spotlight requires something more than just telling a safe joke in a safe way. Comedy changes.

This is a key theme in the superb recent HBO series Hacks, which stars Jean Smart as Deborah Vance, a venerable Las Vegas stand-up comedian faced with declining cachet and the prospect that her act has grown stale. She’s pressured to team up with Ava, a Gen-Z comedy writer steeped in the offbeat and fractured language of internet humor.

The show—which, if you haven’t watched it, I strongly encourage you to do so, it’s wonderful—doesn’t take sides between the two, but rather illustrates the yawning gap between the comedy worlds they’ve grown up in. Vance may tell dog-eared jokes about hapless husbands and out-of-the-spotlight celebrities, but unlike the smartphone-tethered Ava’s Twitter witticisms, Vance notes, they’ve at least got punchlines. Slowly, though, she comes to see the need to adapt, to realize that just because something’s worked for years doesn’t mean it will continue to do so; just because it was funny then doesn’t mean it’s funny now. Again: comedy changes.

Others could do well to take this lesson.

There’s no shortage right now of bad-and-unfunny comedians willing to tell you that the greatest challenge facing people in their line of work today is “cancel culture”, that people are “too sensitive”, “you just can’t say the things you used to be able to”, and “people just can’t take a joke anymore”. I put these notions in quotes even though they’re not specific quotes from any one person, but go ahead—flip around Netflix a little bit, you’ll find ample comedy specials titled something like Unfiltered or No Safe Spaces Here or TRIGGERED MUCH??, starring guys who were bit players on network sitcoms in 1996, and all these sentiments are expressed nearly verbatim within. 

To hear them tell it, it’s not their fault no one’s laughing along with them anymore—they’re as funny as they ever were, and the rules of the game just changed. I’ll agree with them on half of that, which is to say: they are as funny as they ever were, but that’s not a compliment now or then. They’ve just found that the market for predictable, down-punching, locker-room bigotry has dried up, and they can’t understand it.1 

What they’re facing is a sharper version of the same thing that drew the spotlight away from late-night, away from someone far funnier and better than them in Conan O’Brien—the world keeps changing, what’s funny changes too, and it’s hard to stay relevant forever.

I know Conan O’Brien isn’t going away—he didn’t disappear last time, and no one famous ever really retires. In fact, he already has a new show in development with HBOMax that will debut some time in the near future. I’m sure it will be good, though chances are I won’t end up watching it often, just as I rarely found myself tuning in to the TBS show. Late night will soldier on, too, with the Kimmels and Fallons and Cordens doing their thing most weeknights.

It’s hard not to feel like O’Brien’s most recent departure, though, unheralded as it was, is the end of an era in comedy—one I enjoyed a lot, but one I no longer need.

Times change.

In the end, though, some things are timeless, and will be funny forever: Shakespeare’s comedies, Who’s On First, and, at least for me: the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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A sharp and concise summation of this was delivered in a recent radio interview given by comedian Katt Williams, a man long known for pushing the boundaries in his own comedy, wherein he pushes back hard against any notion that “cancel culture” exists or is holding anyone back from being funny, and defends the need for boundaries in humor. It’s worth a listen.