Amid media cacophony, O’Brien replaces Leno

BY MERYN FLUKER | JUNE 10, 2009 7:26 AM

I miss the Masturbating Bear.

In 2004, when NBC announced Conan O’Brien would take over as host of “The Tonight Show,” many of us “Late Night” diehards worried if he’d soften up his image to please audiences, advertisers, and associates. Would we still see Robert Smigel’s lips on former President Clinton’s face making dirty double entendres? Would O’Brien’s new gig have room for Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s merciless and explicit barbs? And is the image of a self-gratifying woodland animal too dangerous at 10:35 p.m. eastern time?

Apparently, the answer to all three is “Yes.”

But, just as many great jokes involve nuance, a three-letter single-syllabic word can’t wholly answer those questions. And that’s the problem. Rather than roast O’Brien over the critical charcoals for playing it too safe on “The Tonight Show,” or laud him as the best thing to happen to that desk since Steve Allen christened it 55 years ago, an honest assessment of Conan O’Brien’s transition lies somewhere in that often troublesome gray area. Just don’t look to the media to illuminate it.

On June 2, the day after O’Brien’s debut as host of “The Tonight Show,” reviews of his performance littered print and web pages. And as a viewer — with a vagina, no less — I’d never had a more excruciating case of blue balls. The premiere arrived on the steam from a seemingly endless media campaign that really began with that 2004 press conference passing the power from Jay Leno to O’Brien, and intensified with both the discussions about Leno’s desire to continue hosting and the all-out bidding war that ensued between networks. A note to all the guys out there who may think I’m overreacting: Try maintaining an erection for five years only to have your smokin’ hot girlfriend tell you she has a headache.

By 9 p.m. June 1, central time, a mere 95 minutes before the new “Tonight Show” was set to air, I couldn’t take it. All the media speculation was exactly the same: Would O’Brien tone down his outrageous content (as if he’s Howard Stern and his reoccurring bits include little people wrestling porn stars)? Would O’Brien be able to match Leno’s viewership and continue “The Tonight Show’s” ratings reign (because those opening night numbers won’t be inflated at all by natural audience curiosity or boosted by the media’s own overindulgence in covering the transition)? Would O’Brien still be funny (since he’s only had about three months with his Emmy-award winning writing staff to prepare the show’s content)?

Again, “yes.” But, just as in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, the media failed viewers by asking the wrong questions. The right queries are just a little too difficult to answer and the results aren’t as instantly satisfying. Anyone who remembers O’Brien’s start at “Late Night” knows it took a solid five years for critics to come around to his bouncy, giggly, and often-bizarre hosting style. Mainstream audiences took even longer to embrace the witty Irish wonder and his cast of irreverent and ridiculous characters (PimpBot 5000? Seriously?).

In pretending these questions could be answered after one grossly overhyped show, the media was lazy and stupid, playing what Aaron Sorkin once called the roles of “hairdressers and cockfight promoters.” No journalist thought it might take awhile for O’Brien, someone whose initial rise to stardom took the lengthiest of scenic routes, to get comfortable in one of the most weighted chairs in Hollywood history?

So is Conan set to continue “The Tonight Show”’s tradition of excellence? After seven episodes, it isn’t clear. Keep in mind that Leno enjoyed ratings success but critical scorn, and even Johnny Carson didn’t bat 1.000 (and his incarnation of “The Tonight Show” still considered late night television’s gold standard).

Here’s an idea: If viewers really want to know how well Conan’s performing, they should take the situation into their own hands. Get online, stream the episodes, and relieve yourselves, just like the Masturbating Bear — and the media — would.

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