Everybody has an opinion in what has become the entertainment story of the year, the NBC Late Night War between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. There is a lot to be said on both sides, and much of it has been said already. But one thing I don’t hear anybody talking about is the rhetorical implications, especially along generational lines, of embracing a “hero” who’s only accomplishment is doing disappointing numbers, refusing to move his timeslot to accommodate the network, and then whining about it. Whatever you believe about who got screwed and who did the screwing we can all agree that Conan-as-victim has been embraced as the master narrative. Stories need good guys and bad guys, and among the blog and Twitter-savvy set (the place where, like it or not, public narratives are constructed these days), Conan is the victim, the martyr, and the hero. NBC and Jay Leno are the bad guys.
Now again, before this page is overrun with “Team Conan” comments I’d like to re-iterate that this has nothing to do with who’s right or who’s wrong, who’s the bad guy and who’s the good guy. A case could be made for Conan having gotten screwed because 1. He never really got a chance to establish himself, 2. His lead-in from the news was hurt by Leno’s own low ratings at 10 p.m. leading into the news, and 3. NBC set him up to fail by arranging the schedule around Leno in the first place. All fair points. An equally good case could be made for the fact that Jay Leno was faced with some tough decisions based around the fact that 1. He was the king of late night and never should have been pushed out in the first place 2. Conan’s ratings were disappointing even before Leno started at ten and 3. All Leno did was what was best for himself and his employer, which no employee should ever be blamed for.
My frustration with the whole scandal is based on what I see as a difference in generational values. My own generation seems to be ignoring a lot of evidence that this was a sticky situation where tough business decisions were made, choosing instead to buy into a more emotionally charged trope about “a guy getting screwed.” We didn’t even question the facts before jumping into the pity party (after Conan’s brilliant statement invited us to, of course). But let’s rewind time a few weeks before all those “poor Conan” tweets you sent out of a sense of injustice on behalf of your favorite late night host: we have a clear case of two guys put in tough professional positions. One of those guys played ball and acted like a professional. And one of those guys acted like a whiny child. And which one is walking away with 40 million dollars and a new legion of adoring fans?
I think the fact that the young public is so ardently behind Conan shows how much as a culture we’ve come to identify with the “poor-me” victim story. That’s not a good thing. It makes sense, Generation X has made a lifelong habit of whining (look where that’s gotten them) and as the official comedian of the generation I think Conan is just playing to his audience. And that’s fine, Conan has his fans and they’ll follow him to Fox or whatever network he goes to next. What worries me more is that the younger, call us Gen-Y, are being swept along with Gen-X into this wave of victim identification. As a culture Generation-Y has been steadily entering the workforce and pulling us out of this tailspin by focusing on results. I think Generation Y has the intellect and work ethic to put the disastrous epoch of post-baby-boomer mess behind us, but not if we embrace as whiners as heroes, and not if we follow Gen-X’s tired tropes of helplessness.
Here’s how I hope Gen-Y will come down on the debate, not emotionally but logically. Maybe “poor Conan” should have put up better numbers, or maybe he never belonged at 11:35 in the first place. Sure, maybe he didn’t get a fair shot, but what about showbusiness gives anyone the idea that a fair shot is what to expect? This is a business, and a business decision was made. Here at the Culture Wharf we advocate a kind of extreme realism based on perception, seeing the world as it is, and resisting the easy bandwagon answer of jumping on Generation X’s embrace of a whiny hero.