Donde Esta Conando? or Why Conan Matters to Us

It's 12:30am on a Tuesday morning. I'm not asleep. Why? I'm bummed about the fact that there will no longer 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'll start with the basics. I'm a fan. In the nineties, my oldest sister introduced me to his show. I was just a kid. A 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 and I was instantaneously hooked. In my house, we were raised on Danny Kaye, so there was an sense of familiarity about this tall, witty goofball.

My husband and I went to a friend's house last Friday to watch his final episode. As he bid us adieu, Conan himself said the work he does is just comedy. The Tonight Show is just another television show. He shared other wise words. He was frustratingly mature.

With everything happening in the world right now, especially in Haiti, 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. Whether I should or shouldn't is a moot point. There's that pregnant pause around feelings again. That mysterious ellipsis.

I've been trying to put my finger on why exactly. Why is important. Why always matters. So let's catalogue:

  • Conan is hilarious.
  • His writers are great.
  • He really does have the best band in the history of television...
  • ...and Andy is the icing on the comedy cake. (I still stand firm on my opinion that Andy Barker P.I. was canceled WAY too soon.)

No. There's still something else.

Since the dawn of television, every generation has its own version of The Tonight Show, a time to steer the cultural ship. Conan is the host of my generation...of our generation. His humor has the trademark irreverence of our youth. I was eleven when he took over Late Night. As mentioned, my oldest sister encouraged me to watch his show. So I did. 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 only in theaters for a fleeting amount of time. 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, they're along for the ride. A shared common experience.

For me, Conan was something of a 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 at all. 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 that you could turn your TV on every night at 12:30 (and 11:30 for the past seven months) and have a kind of a gauge in Conan.

If Conan could still be making jokes, there was almost a sense that everything was going to be okay. Through wars and economic crises, if Conan was showed up onscreen and made jokes, it felt like things were going to be okay.

And if he took a moment to stop and be serious, then maybe it was time to panic and loot.

Again, I know, it all sounds a little irrational. But in a way, 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, we met with a much less friendly job market than our parents did at our age. At least, that's how it felt.

Conan will land on his feet. I have no doubt about that. 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 I'm feeling.

Silly as it sounds, my generation was robbed of our version of The 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. But there's a surprising grieving process happening that, quite frankly, has taken me by surprise.

There's something that feels personally offensive about Conan's cancellation. As a twenty-seven year old woman ready to build a career for myself and finally start living life as an adult...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.

For 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 and years to come, a Tonight Show that appealed to our sense of humor, our world view, 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!!!