Donde Esta Conando? or Why Conan Matters to Us

Dewey Nicks for The New York Times

It's 12:30am on a Tuesday. I'm not asleep. Why? I'm bummed there won't be any new episodes of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien.

No. I'm beyond bummed. I'm sad. I'm...disturbed? I need to unpack this.

I'm a fan. In the nineties, my oldest sister introduced me. I was just a kid. A little night owl. I wandered into her bedroom and saw her laughing face illuminated by the glow of her tiny, boxy camping tv. He was doing a remote about truck driving. I was hooked. In my house, we were raised on Danny Kaye, so there was a sense of familiarity about this tall, witty goofball.

As Conan bid us adieu, he said the work he does is just comedy. The Tonight Show is just another television show. He was frustratingly mature.

With everything happening in the world right now, there really are better causes. I can't argue with that. We've been riveted by Haiti coverage and are definitely doing what we can...though it's not much. Certainly not enough.

But it's also possible to have two feelings simultaneously. Concern for world matters and bittersweet feelings about The Tonight Show are not mutually exclusive. And here I am, up past midnight, feeling...sad. That's a mysterious ellipsis. It keeps showing up in this article. Why do I feel like I can't say I'm sad? Why do I feel the need to offer so many disclaimers? Whether I should or shouldn't feel this way is a moot point. Because I do.

I've been trying to put my finger on why exactly. Why is important. Why always matters. So let's catalog:
  • Conan is hilarious.
  • His writers are great.
  • He really does have the best band in the history of television.
  • Andy is the icing on the comedy cake. (Andy Barker P.I. canceled but not forgotten.)

But. There's still something else.

Since the dawn of television, each generation had its turn with The Tonight Show, a time to steer the cultural ship. Conan is the host of my generation, of our generation. I was eleven when he took over Late Night. Conan was a presence in my life through jr. high, high school, college, and into my early adulthood.

Sitcoms and dramas go on hiatus, films are in theaters for a fleeting moment. But the late shows, ah, they're on almost every night, give or take a few weeks throughout the year. They're sharing current events with you. Like news anchors, they're along for the ride.

For me, Conan was a litmus test. I almost hate to say something like this, because it makes me sound like I take all my emotional cues from a TV show. That's not it. I'm a big consumer of news and a careful one at that. I'm invested in world and current events. But there was something relaxing about knowing you could turn your TV on every night at 12:30 (and 11:30 for the past seven months) and have a kind of...gauge.

If Conan was making jokes, there was a sense that everything was going to be okay. A calm. Through wars and economic crises, if Conan was showed up onscreen and made jokes, it felt like things were normal. When they weren't normal, we processed them together.

If he took a moment (or an entire show) to stop and be serious, then maybe it was time to panic. Just a smidge.

Conan is a national mascot. A generational touchstone, like Carson and others before him. He's even living the experience of finding uneasy footing because his predecessor won't leave. Something people my age can certainly understand.

After the recession, many people stalled retirement. After college, I met with a much less friendly job market than my parents did at my age. At least, that's how it felt. 

Conan will land on his feet. I have no doubt. In the meantime, we'll wait and see what he does next. But now that all the hysteria is over, all the buzz, the final Tonight Show, there's a new kind of sadness.

We were robbed of our Tonight Show. I know NBC is a big private company. They can do what they please. I'm not as entitled as I sound. I'm making a commitment not to be cynical about it, as per Conan's request. But there's a surprising grieving process that, quite frankly, is taking me by surprise.

There's something personally offensive about Conan's cancellation. As a twenty-seven-year-old woman ready to build my own career...it almost feels like they canceled me. Ridiculous as this sounds, I hope it's not a harbinger of things to come. An old guard who will refuse to go. A group who'll stall progress.

To anyone out there who doesn't understand all the fuss over Conan, that's okay. You don't have to. But there's more going on here than millions of whiners and malcontents. There's a cultural shift. We lost something we thought we were going to have for years to come, a Tonight Show that appealed to our sense of humor and our worldview, fronted by our host.

All those years we spent having to go to bed early while the grown-ups watched Carson, and now we're finally old enough to stay up, and...

That mysterious ellipsis.

Edited on 5-31-18


  1. Really great article, Audrey. You hit the nail on the head. We don't have to justify our enthusiasm for Conan in socio-political terms.

    Conan knows just how to make US giggle. Those who suggest we're wasting energy either can't see that, or grossly underestimate the value of giggles, or both.

  2. I really enjoyed the way you explained the situation. I've been feeling bummed out as well and didn't know exactly why this bothered me so much. It's nice to know that others feel the same way I do. And the goonies clip is perfect!

  3. I have my own theory why it matters. Conan really is for the "nerds and geeks" - the smart people who aren't afraid to laugh at their own insecurity and stupidity. Jay is for the jocks - the average people who feels great when they can laugh at other people's stupidity and would die if they're caught in an embarassing act.

    I have a feeling that the newer generation has no qualms about being nerds. They're more empowered since they realize, through Internet, that there are a lot of nerds in this world. That's where the cultural shift lies, evident by the amazing support on the Internet. That also explains why there are young people who likes Jay more and old people who likes Conan more.

    Conan is a nerd. And I say it affectionately. He's that big-headed geek who's not afraid in being absurd. Jay is the jock who loves cars and couldn't make a deadpan joke. He finds stupidity in the world outside of him and laughs at that stupidity.

  4. You got all my feelings and thoughts out of my mind, explaining them in a coherent way. It is hard for me to express how I feel because I'm no writer. Thank you!

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone, and Ian, you are SO right. I've never thought about it that way before, but that is a VERY keen insight. He is kind of our geek mascot!

  6. I'm with you. You've articulated perfectly what we've been feeling around here, and something that I think about quite a bit, as a 33-year old person who's not felt so much like validated grown-up yet, despite the career and the house, the 401k and the husband. (I actually think that's a great thing, but that's a whole other rambling comment.) The whole Coco/Leno backpedaling feels, in a way, like the geeks and the young and the creative have lost some epic battle. It makes me think about the tragedy that is Public Radio in Atlanta, a major market with but one NPR station that plays nothing but classical music all. damn. day. But it also makes me consider what my weirdo parents used to do when my brother or I wanted to do something that was a bit "older" than our actual maturity level. They'd sing, in full harmony, a couple bars of a Led Zeppelin song. "Yooouuur time is gooonnnnna come..." And they were right. I just wonder, still wonder, why it's taking so long?

  7. I put forth that Conan is much more geek than nerd. In my classical understanding of spazzes/nerds/geeks, all have a few core sensabilities with varying degrees of social eptitude. Conan is most definitely the cool geek that in high school could fraternize with the jocks, band geeks, chess club, whomever, and make them laugh. His comedy is too physical to be nerd, and too grounded in reality to be spastic.

  8. Even though it's been a couple years since I've watched Conan, I was sad too.

    Mainly because Jay Leno is not funny in my opinion.

    And also I have a secret crush on Conan. Shhh...


  9. I have a secret crush on Conan too...so we'll keep it between you and me and the internets. Maybe we can doodle his name onto ours the next time we hang out!!!


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