Conan, Comedy, and Entertainment

It’s been three months now since the ugly divorce of NBC and Conan O’Brien and almost as long since the last Culture Wharf update. The Culture Wharf has not gone away, we’ve just been busy saving the world with socially astute observation elsewhere.

So after this hiatus for both The Wharf and Conan, CoCo is finally beginning to re-emerge into the public consciousness with his live comedy tour. It’s a smart move for Conan to keep his buzz up this summer while he’s shopping himself for a show (which he almost certainly will get on one network or another) in September.

But the re-appearance of Conan got me thinking about the real crux of NBC’s Conan fiasco: the difference between comedian and an entertainer.

Conan is a comedian. Jay Leno is an entertainer. The real difference? An entertainer is an evolved comedian, or perhaps an evolved singer, somebody who can fill a room with the force of his or her personality. For a comedian its about jokes and humor. For an entertainer it’s all about the show. That can make some entertainers weak on comedy, but they always make up for it in showmanship. That’s what Conan couldn’t do on the Tonight Show. He’s too much of a comedian.

When the entire comedy community came out against Leno for being a sellout and an NBC shill the difference had never been more clear between comedians and entertainers. Comedians are, by nature, anti. Anti-corporate, anti-culture, anti-self. Entertainers are pro. Pro-laughter, pro-audience, pro-self in a big way.

Conan got his start as a writer, and not as a stand-up, and I think that tells the whole story. Conan was an anomaly in Late Night, a gawky non-performer thrust into a performers role. And it worked because Conan was great at comedy. He evolved the meta-comedy of being a non-performer, a goofy big-haired writer that some idiots put on television! It was Late Night for people who prize pure comedy over showmanship, weird off-beat comedy for insomniacs, writers, and intellectuals. As nervously self-aware, deconstructed, and self-deprecating as the people that watched. It was a likeable schtick, but someone other than me should have realized it could only ever play at 12:30. The Tonight Show, always and forever, will be a seat reserved for a confident performer. An entertainer like Jay Leno. Love him or hate him, Leno knows how to put on a show that his audience will want to watch.

So it’s good to see Conan taking back to the comedy clubs. TV changes comedy, TV entertainer-izes comedy. And the more popular the show and timeslot the more it has to be done. That’s why Conan’s comedy could work at 12:30. And I hope, for comedy’s sake, that he lands not at 11:00 on Fox where he would be as neutered as he was on The Tonight Show. Conan belongs somewhere like FX at midnight when nobody will be expected to watch. Only in a situation of similarly low expectations will he be able to do his thing, his way, and build a real audience and a real space for his comedy on T.V.

And in the mean time I hope all the bitter Conan fans out there will stop crying (see previous post entitled “Fragile Gen-X Syndrome”) and realize that this was the best thing to ever happen to him.

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