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Conan Took the Hard Road
As the country became more polarized, we undervalued his nonpolitical comedy.
By Jeff Maurer
Nobody did smart/dumb humor like Conan O’Brien. His nearly three decades in late-night comedy—which ended last month with the wrapping of his TBS show, “Conan”—were a master class in turning stupidity into high art. Characters like the really tall dachshund, A-hole Ronald, and Potato Judge were completely pointless, and that was the point. If you were looking for social commentary, you were in the wrong place. The most political Conan ever got was when the masturbating bear explained the Clinton impeachment. Which—though it involved a bear in a diaper—was probably more trenchant than half the political satire that airs on late-night TV these days.
Because I wrote for “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” a show that cranks out political opinions the way the Olive Garden makes breadsticks, you might think I’m sneering at Conan for being nonpolitical. I’m not. I’m a Conan superfan; I've been watching him since I was 13, and the Conan/Leno fight over “The Tonight Show” was the closest I’ve ever come to advocating a violent overthrow of society. I’m a highly political person, but I never wanted Conan to be political. It seems obvious to me that not everything should be political; that would be a smidge totalitarian. And it did, indeed, feel weird last year when all of a sudden the likes of Slim Jim and Little Debbie felt the need to get on the record about social justice. The Swiffer Wet Jet does not need a political valence.
The comedian in me is sorry to lose a funny show—Conan will probably be replaced by the umpteenth reality show about cake, or “Downton Abbey: The Tween Years,” or something like that. The political scientist in me is sorry to lose a nonpolitical space—democracy needs those in order for democracy to be tolerable. All of me feels that Conan’s style of humor is underappreciated.
Conan was on TV during a sea change in late-night comedy; I witnessed it, I participated in it, and I have mixed feelings about it. I like political comedy, but I also like nonpolitical comedy, and I think we’ve come to chronically undervalue the latter.
When Conan started in the early ‘90s, all of late-night followed the Johnny Carson model. There was a desk, a band, a monologue, a sidekick who would piss his pants at the mere mention of the word “Viagra,” and guests who had so much fun filming their latest project and would like to tell you about it. Hosts would joke about politics but not take sides. That was the archetype when late-night shows exploded in the ‘90s, and boy did they ever explode—do you remember that Chevy Chase had a show? And so did Whoopi Goldberg. And Magic Johnson. And Roseanne Barr. And if you don’t believe that these shows were, by and large, politically neutral, behold this screenshot from “The Roseanne Show” in 1997:
What the hell are those people doing together? That picture makes me feel the way I do when someone in an old movie just walks right onto a plane without going through security: My brain cannot comprehend that a time like that existed.
Back then, political comedy was a niche product. Then, in 1999, Jon Stewart took over “The Daily Show” and started giving his actual opinion about what was going on. I remember it well; I was a freshman in college, studying political science, and it felt like I had just witnessed primates evolve thumbs. Politics and comedy had come together; it was a miraculous merger of two things I loved that could only have been matched if Radiohead had released a line of frozen pizzas.
I was an avid watcher of both Stewart and Conan when John Oliver left “The Daily Show” and hired me for “Last Week Tonight.” That was 2014, which happens to be the same year that Matt Yglesias identifies as the beginning of “The Great Awokening.” Around that time, the increasing polarization of American politics accelerated, driven largely by changes on the left. That shift was probably part of the reason why—after a decade of Stewart, Colbert, and Bill Maher being the only large objects in the political-comedy universe—the next seven years saw, by my count, 17political-comedy late-night shows on the air. Seventeen! The only comedians not given a political-comedy show during those years were myself, Gallagher, and Fatty Arbuckle.
Political shows are different from nonpolitical shows in that you’re cooking with two ingredients: politics and comedy. You can give a piece some kick by using more of one ingredient and less of the other; a piece with something interesting to say about politics can be less funny, and vice versa.
But here’s the thing: Giving an opinion is easier than writing a joke. If you ever saw a “Last Week Tonight” piece that ended with a political statement instead of a joke, there’s a good chance that one of the writers (probably me) stared at a laptop for 90 minutes trying to come up with a joke, then finally said, “To hell with it,” and wrote a Big Important Statement instead. Another trade secret: The Big Important Statement doesn’t need to be very sharp as long as your audience agrees with it. The splintering of media, along with the tribalization of American politics, has led to ideologically homogeneous crowds, which, in turn, has made “clapter”—making the audience clap instead of laugh—a potent force in comedy.
Political comedy can also be a shortcut to critical acclaim. We all know that actors chase credibility by seeking “challenging” roles: Every actor dreams of playing a dyslexic orphan born with no torso who wants to compete in the luge at the Olympics. In the same way, comedians sometimes seek out Big Important Topics even when they have nothing funny or insightful to say because tastemakers validate that choice.
The Emmys have showered awards on political late-night shows ever since the comedy/variety category was dominated in the ‘90s by that well-loved, classic political-comedy show that we all remember—say it with me now—“Dennis Miller Live” (five-time winner). Critics often roll their eyes at mere comedy—ugh, so plebeian!—and judge a show based on whether or not it says something. One representative example is NPR reviewing the show that most comedians agree is the funniest show on TV right now, “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson”:
“Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson delights in depicting acts of thoughtless, entitled masculinity—but only to expose the desperation, defensiveness and hilariously fragile egotism that drive them.”
“Beneath these characters’ bluff bravado lies a searing portrait of contemporary American maleness that makes I Think You Should Leave seem a lot more relevant, and a lot less stupid, than its many, many gleefully stupid jokes.”
Jesus, NPR: Can’t you just enjoy something? Does every single aspect of our lives need to be a statement about social justice? Is there any chance that the hilarious sketch in which Tim Robinson screams obscenities on a “ghost tour” might not be a sub-rosa commentary on gender entitlement? NPR is implying that “I Think You Should Leave” is good because it says something; for me, the fact that it’s funny is enough.
When Conan started, he was one of many; by the time he left, he was one of a kind. The late-night world is probably due for a market correction: We may have reached a point at which not every rising stand-up or former “Mad TV” cast member needs to have an opinion on the Trans-Pacific Partnership in order to pitch a talk show. I think the next few years will see a rise in purely funny content, and that’s good: Late-night needs more nonpolitical spaces. Democracy needs them, too. I hope that a few of them are half as funny as Conan.
Jeff Maurer is a former senior writer for “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and current writer of a political-comedy Substack called I Might Be Wrong.
“Real Time with Bill Maher,” “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas,” “The Break with Michelle Wolf,” “The Rundown with Robin Thede,” “The Jim Jefferies Show,” “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” “Wilmore” (different show), “The Opposition with Jordan Klepper,” “DESUS & MERO,” “The Amber Ruffin Show,” and “PAUSE with Sam Jay.”