Conan O'Brien must be the most talked about showbiz exile in memory. Before his 60 Minutes segment last night, Conan's post-Tonight Show odyssey has been heavily-covered by the entertainment press, including the New York Times' Bill Carter, who seemed concerned for Conan's professional future. There was little doubt that Conan would find another outlet, but the way he was dumped by NBC pushed people into pro and anti camps. It was a feeding frenzy over a rich celebrity's fate, another American feature that separates us from lesser nations.
To Conan's credit, he didn't make a big fuss about his status, though it had to be embarrassing for him. He's the Jean Doumanian of Tonight Show hosts, the only one let go before he relaxed into the room. He toned down his act for 11:35, which led to some truly boring and dopey bits, but even that didn't matter. When Jay Leno's breathing over your shoulder, reminding the network of his high ratings and profits, you're more or less fucked, regardless of how time-slot friendly you're attempting to be. With Leno sucking network peacock (his "slams" of NBC bullshit cover), Conan never had a clear shot.
So now Conan takes his absurdist act to TBS, a smart move, albeit the only real option he probably had. TBS is so ecstatic with their coup that they'll doubtless allow Conan free reign, and perhaps we'll see some inspired comedy as Conan re-establishes his brand. What we won't see is anything terribly topical, certainly nothing outside TV's fixed parameters. Which is fine with Conan; he has long maintained that his act is meaningless, that comedy itself should avoid "preaching" (i.e. having a political/social viewpoint). As he told Mike Thomas in The Second City Unscripted:
"People increasingly want comedy to mean something, and they want it to be relevant to what's happening in the world, and I've always believed the opposite, which is it should be irrelevant. It shouldn't mean anything. You shouldn't look for meaning in comedy. That's my religious conviction, and I'm orthodox about that."
I believe that Conan's sincere. His comedy certainly reflects this thinking. But this is an extremely limited, parochial view of an expansive art form. To say that your comedy means nothing will certainly not hurt you professionally or financially, as Conan, Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, and countless others have shown. To insist that all comedy must be pointless is mere hubris, though it does send a clear message to struggling comics looking for their shot. Keep it dumb. Don't challenge the audience, or worse, make them reflect. The main goal is wealth and celebrity. Anything else is toxic to the mix.
This has been borne out in my early NYC sets. Most comics I've met or brushed against are extremely hostile to political/social material. And the thing is, I've yet to really get rolling. I'm dealing with general cultural themes from an autobiographical standpoint, and since much of my adult life has dealt with politics on one level or another, I cannot avoid discussing it. I can, however, make it funny, satirize it, reduce it to its ridiculous roots and rip out the punch lines. This won't win me a spot on Conan's new show, no matter how many masturbation jokes I tell (and I have my share). That's not The Project's goal -- at least, I hope not. As John Lydon told Tom Snyder about Public Image Ltd., I don't know what it is. It doesn't need a category or a label anymore.
That's the beautiful thing about comedy: it encompasses everything and nothing. It can be serious, silly, weird, absurd, satirical, physical, aggressive, passive, pointless, meaningful. At its best, comedy reveals and makes you laugh along with the truth. But it also releases tension through the dumbest gags. Comedy can do it all. There's no reason to limit its reach or hollow out its meaning, unless you're looking to control others. Then it ceases to be comedy and becomes something else, something with a definite perspective. Decry "relevance" all you like, but everything is relevant because everything is connected. It's how you deal with or define those connections that creatively marks you.
Some may point to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as "relevant" comics, the chief satirists of our age. I've shared my thoughts on this front, and see no need to change them, though apparently Stewart's writers helped with Obama's White House Correspondence Dinner routine. First, genuine satirists don't write gags for heads of state committing war crimes. But they especially don't write jokes that treat mass murder as fun, helping said mass murderer appear delightful and witty. (Friend Jon Schwarz is all over this.) Define predator drone jokes anyway you choose, but don't tell me that it's meaningless. Save that noise for Conan and whatever over-sexed animal characters he has in development.