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.


Bob Westal said…
I've been meaning to take a look at Conan's show. Guess I should add it to the TiVo.

I see your point, but maybe you're referring to something he's said recently (maybe the Huckabee appearance) which I haven't heard about, but in general I'm not sure I'd call Jay Leno a "Republican mouthpiece," exactly.

"Apparently spineless"? You bet. "Obsequious before the powerful"? At times, for sure. "Not funny in this century"? Absolutely. Sad because, way back when, he was pretty great. His wife seems cool, however -- and he does rescue people on the road and stuff, so there's that. Maybe he's just too nice to be truthful.

Actually, I did catch his comments about the war a few years back. He basically said, prior to the invasion of Iraq, that he supported Bush's posturing because he thought it might draw important concessions from Saddam, but that, if the war actually happened, well that was another matter.

To quote the great Artie Johnson: "Verrrry interesting...but stupid."
Cinephile said…
Fair points. I guess I'm thinking of Bob Dole's appearances on the show as a "correspondent" in the late 90s; Ahnuld's campaign announcements, Leno's fluffy questioning and subsequent appearance at AS's victory rally; and the constant (a decade later!) Clinton blow job jokes he feels the need to do (and the near-absence of tough anti-Bush jokes in his monologues, despite Bush's low approval ratings). I know he's friends with Schwarzennager, and that Bill Clinton is fair game, but with the exception of John Kerry's announcement on his show, I'm hard-pressed to think of any moment since Leno took over the show that similar courtesies were extended to the other side of the aisle. Leno might be more socially progressive in his personal life (and I agree his wife's work is admirable), but I don't think it's unfair to say that he's used a very powerful platform to generally support more conservative causes (and as you say, that might just be a general pandering to power, which THE LATE SHIFT book suggests is of a piece with his overall comedy/professional style).

And that's fine-- it's his show, and he definitely has that right. But I think it's also fair to point it out, or at least ponder it a bit. I agree with you, too-- he was very funny on the show before he became regular host, and it's a shame the program's devolved so much in the last 15 years.
Cinephile said…
Bob-- I like your icon, too! Forgive my ignorance if it's really obvious to others more informed than I, but who's it of? Is that you, or...?
Bob Westal said…
Like I said, I didn't really disagree with you and when I read that list, he sure does seem like a sort of moderate Republican enabler. I just suspect a rightwinger would come up with another list that would make him seem like a crazy liberal to them. (Remember, they think the Clintons are leftists. Heck, they think loony warmonger Giuliani is a liberal.) Leno's just a people-pleaser by nature, I suspect.

As for the icon -- yes, it's a caricature of me by my great cartoonist friend, Randy Reynaldo. He's been keeping the spirit of Milton Caniff and Will Eisner alive for years through his "Rob Hanes Adventures" comics. He's terrific, but I'll just add that, when he draws pictures of himself, he doesn't give the cartoon Randy giant chipmunk cheeks. The cartoon Bob however....

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