Evening at the Improv
I support the writers' strike. I think, given the amounts of money under discussion, the potential of the internet and other new media sources as distributors of their work, and the insane intransigence of the AMPTP, that it's professionally crazy and ethically suspect not to give the writers a share of those profits. I also think the strike-breaking tactics and anti-WGA rhetoric we're seeing right now is a dry run for the kinds of rhetoric we'll see the right use in this year's (almost said "next year"-- time flies!) elections.
That said, I am utterly spellbound watching Conan O'Brien work without his writers tonight. O'Brien, a WGA member, has supported the strike from the start and paid his employees out of his pocket while the show's been off the air, and he had kind words for the strike in his pseudo-monologue this evening. Which is nice, but what's really fascinating is seeing him work without a net. Watching him tonight reminds me of what I've read about the early days of late-night, when everything was open to shaping, from Steve Allen's wacky stunts to Jack Paar's autobiographical monologues and trips to Cuba. It's an inversion of the usual procedure-- O'Brien constantly foregrounds the fact that the writers are missing, cuts away to camera crew and staff in the booth, talks about how nervous he is (and as someone who recently entered the ranks of the goateed, I also dig his "solidarity beard"); it's both a breaking of the "illusion" that the show is not scripted, and also a different kind of mystification-- "Look how daring we're being!" The "what do you do during the strike?" short film, the casual conversation with guests, the casual flow of the show-- it's like he's just doing anything to see what sticks. And because it's Conan O'Brien, a lot of it does: if Letterman is the late-night king and Jon Stewart the crown prince, then Conan is the form's court jester, a surreal madman hidden inside the buttoned-down nerd next door. Unlike that robotic Republican mouthpiece Jay Leno, O'Brien has an ingratiating personality and a writer's spinning imagination (he was once a head writer on The Simpsons) that allows him to relax and have fun, riff off a sudden comment or gesture, and laugh at his own ridiculousness. All of which creates a perceptual paradox: I think the writers should get their fair deal and have the opportunity to work as soon as possible, but I wouldn't mind watching more of this offbeat programming for awhile.