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Coco’s Channel

A haftorah of promises and pain

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'I'm with Coco' graphic

A poster by artist Mike Mitchell voices support for Conan O’Brien in his feud with NBC.

CREDIT: Mike Mitchell

I’m with Coco.

Could it be otherwise? The red-headed host of The Tonight Show, formally known as Conan O’Brien, is a bit of a hero these days, having gingerly stood up to a sinking network eager to treat him like a flipper does a pinball. Almost immediately, the Internet Illuminati divided neatly into Team Coco and Team Jay Leno, the latter casting its lot with O’Brien’s predecessor and successor. It was time to choose.

Not that I had any doubt where I stood. Even if, for some reason—a sudden stroke, maybe, or a steel beam to the head—I were to find Leno’s limp comedic antics worthy of anything other than profound contempt, I would still support Coco.

Before you accuse me of frivolity—what, after all, are these televised scuffles when millions of real people scramble for safety and cower in fear?—allow me this audacious claim: Coco’s plight is a morality tale for our time.

Let us review the facts: having promised the coveted Tonight Show to O’Brien, NBC first undermined its new host by naming his predecessor, Leno, as the host of a daily, prime-time variety show and then, when that experiment went sour, demanded that O’Brien push his show’s start time to five minutes past midnight—which would mean that the Tonight Show wouldn’t start until tomorrow—to make room for yet more Leno-led programming. O’Brien refused. He stood up to the besuited bozos who bossed him around. This week was his last on the job.

Even without having ever chuckled at the masturbating bear, say, or marveled at the moronic charm of The Interrupter, it’s easy to identify with O’Brien. Gangly and pale, with a bright-red pompadour that looks like it was born of a passionate affair between the hairstyles of Elvis and Elvira, O’Brien is one of the oddest-looking men ever to grace the small screen. His peculiarity is a big part of his charm; rarely a moment goes by without some self-deprecating quip about his translucent skin or his genuinely terrible impersonations. As his guests, writers, and friends have frequently testified, O’Brien is that rara avis of network TV, a truly sincere man, and it’s his candor, even more than his humor, that has driven millions to join the ranks of Team Coco.

And then there’s NBC. Think your employers are a bunch of power-mad loons who, as O’Brien himself so poignantly put it, eat money and defecate problems? Imagine what poor Coco must feel. Sure, he’s walking home with a reported $32 million buyout, but he now faces an uncertain future, not to mention the dozens of employees who abandoned their former lives in New York to follow him to Burbank.

This, of course, is not the first time the network chooses to engage in perfidy. Leno himself got his break at the expense of David Letterman, who, like O’Brien, was promised Johnny Carson’s old chair and then kicked to the curb. Back then, at least, NBC had the courtesy of supporting its men: it stuck with Leno for two years as he trailed behind Letterman in the ratings, allowing him to build up his base and gradually climb to the top. It also gave Leno a strong lead-in audience with hit shows like Seinfeld and Friends, innovative programming that required far-sighted executives to take risks and trust their tastes.

Good luck finding such men anymore. Run by Jeff Zucker, NBC is combating its dismal last-place ranking among major networks by making decisions that further remove it from any semblance of relevancy. Leno’s 10 p.m. show is a case in point: with low production costs and little flavor, it’s the White Castle of television programming. Viewers seeking more palatable stuff have long ago gone elsewhere.

A man who won the presidency of his high school’s student body by running on the slogan “The Little Man with the Big Ideas,” Zucker might want to take this idea to heart: this week, drop the Journal and pick up Jeremiah.

The author of this week’s haftorah tells us of the destruction of one empire, Egypt, at the hands of another, Babylon. The Egyptians’ sin is well known: cruel and untoward behavior towards their employees, the Israelites. No matter how mighty you are, Jeremiah orates, act imperiously and you’ll soon be answering to a much higher power.

Seen in this light, the late-night drama can be recast not as a salacious story of ego and ignorance but as the latest installment in an eternal cycle of power and vanity. While NBC executives are not, to the best of my knowledge, buried, like the pharaohs of old, with scarabs and servants, it’s not unfair to see the network as a diminutive reincarnation of the ancient Egyptian empire, a cultural beacon toward which others lift their eyes, a moneyed entity jockeying for global influence. And while NBC’s sins, of course, are nothing like the evils of Egypt, O’Brien’s story teaches us that the network, like Egypt of old, was driven to its predicament by forgetting that, despite some appearances to the contrary, wealth and power cannot be permitted to override the eternal values of civility, courtesy, and respect.

It’s a lesson that empires of all sorts frequently need to relearn. Until they do, I’m with Coco.

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I lost interest in “Coco” when he added his former sidekick to his show. I lost interest in Leno when he started having air-head guests. Both of these men have qualities that qualify them as Presidential candidates.

Skye Smith says:

I enjoyed “Coco” long before he inherited The Tonight Show. I have never taken a liking to Jay Leno. Perhaps he was funny decades ago, but O’Brien has what Leno seemed to lack from the get-go: originality, creativity and last but not least, a sense of ethics. Leno used so much of the format Johnny Carson had evolved for the The Tonight show that it was like squeezing a second-rate hack into a finely tailored suit. Conan had and has similar qualities to Carson. He enjoyed what he did — you cannot fake this, particularly when you’re under pressure from the corporate brass. And you know Conan dealt with a lot of stress, making the move from New York and being given a paltry seven months to turn the ratings around. As for bringing his “former sidekick” to the show, this demonstrates loyalty. There is an undeniable chemistry which works between Andy Richter and O’Brien, because the former typically has a laid back sense of humor, which pairs nicely with Conan’s hyper wild man. Leno attracts air-head guests, because he’s dull and absolutely predictable. To underscore this fact, I will use Craig Ferguson (CBS) as an example of a late night talk show host who can and has had to contend with air-head guests; Paris Hilton being a prime example. Craig Ferguson made a person I consider an intolerable git reveal just how vapid she is without relying on insult or (as Leno would) pretending interest in a person who is painfully disinteresting. He tried to find something of worth from this load of narcissistic confetti. Ferguson is quite clever and funny in his own right, so he can keep an audience interested despite being saddled with an air-head. Leno isn’t clever, apparently lacks the ability or desire to improvise and hasn’t mastered the fine art of innuendo, which is a strategic twist of words that whistle straight through many an air-head. Conan has a genuine reaction to people, as Carson did. Leno fawns, kisses up, treats the air-head as thought they are to be taken as seriously as people with genuine talent. Conan demonstrated traits which seem to elude Jay Leno: integrity, loyalty and common decency. He didn’t pull the “Jay-walking” crap, selectively showing clips of the incredibly ignorant people on the streets of L.A. — no doubt editing out the intelligent persons. He reeks of being a suck-up and egoist. He believes he is most important, or he would have done The Right Thing. He single-handedly caused the majority of viewers to switch from NBC to CBS, PBS…resulting in Conan and Fallon suffering in the ratings. Conan recognized that Fallon is talented and fun and he refused to screw the younger guy’s chances. Leno? He’s corrupted by fame and money he does not and has not deserved. Jay Leno cares about Jay Leno. I refuse to watch this has-been who IMO is a never-was. I hope Fallon can survive following up the same old dead horse NBC decided to keep beating. “Management” at NBC is disconnected from consensual reality. This is typical of corporate America, who is not spending time in the trenches with the people who work for them or sitting among people in the audience, but instead issues orders and makes decisions from a distance. Conan is well-liked by many people, with good reason: he is a person of conscience who has not been blinded by the illusion of self-importance and, unlike Leno, considers how his actions will effect the people around him. Good luck, NBC…you are gonna need it!

jimmy kraktov says:

Conan is facing an uncertain future? That puts him at par with most people’s futures, but he’s being given a cool $32 million dollars, and he secured a fair buyout for his staff. Good for him. NBC certainly didn’t treat him well but they did pay him well while he was there. Sorry, but I just can’t feel badly for someone who just got handed $32 million for putting his signature on a piece of paper. The way I see it is that NBC has big problems but Conan is now free to do whatever he wants, and with that severance pay in hand, he can take as long as he wants to decide what that will be. Poor Conan. I wish I had his problem!

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Coco’s Channel

A haftorah of promises and pain

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