Everyone Loved It and They Took It Away from Us: Sarah Hennies on Conan O’Brien and the 2010 Tonight Show Conflict

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Zoom conversation between Sarah Hennies and Jonathan Pfeffer that took place on July 17, 2023, edited and condensed for clarity.

Sarah Hennies: I don’t know how other people my age feel, but I had a sense that Conan O’Brien was our guy. The kind of stuff he did on his show was surreal and stupid, but also really smart. Like your smart friend who loves poop jokes. Conan represented what someone of my generation wanted to see on TV when they were 14 years old. It’s why Conan was on at 11:30 at night. It was forbidden; you had to sneak to stay up late to watch, which is what made it exciting.

But also it was just funny. The masturbating bear is fucking stupid. It’s so stupid. Humor is generational and our parents don’t understand stupid humor. It’s because our parents’ parents definitely didn’t understand stupid humor; it’s just not in their DNA. Our parents weren’t nice to us, so of course we like the masturbating bear.

Conan wasn’t my hero or anything, but it felt like one of our people was going to inherit the throne of late night TV, this cornerstone of our childhood. I remember watching his first episode in Leno’s time slot and having this feeling of, “We did it.”

Then Jay Leno just came back. “Ah, actually, uh, I’d like to just still do this, please.” Since 65-year-old people still watch TV and they hate the masturbating bear, the network is like, “Shit, we better get Jay Leno back in here.” He didn’t even need the money. None of them need it; it’s not about need. It’s about the total narcissism of feeding this insatiable desire to have control. It doesn’t seem like something that I should still be emotional about, but it really felt like something was taken from us.

I can’t unsee it at every level of society. It is fucking absurd that someone of Joe Biden’s age ran for president, let alone a second term. It makes me crazy because I see it in my own parents. People in their 80s with power just won’t leave; they literally have to die before they will give up even a shred of control. What makes me feel so crazy about the Leno thing is they wouldn’t let us have this nice thing that didn’t matter at all. I’m convinced that that happened because that boomers were like, “Actually, we don’t want you to be in charge. We just want to keep running everything.”

I’ll never forget when Bernie ran against Biden and there was a graph of who voted for who. There was this giant bar of people over 60 who overwhelmingly voted for Biden and the vast majority of people under 35 wanted Bernie. But because of the baby boom, those people have the numbers. I just remember seeing this comment on Twitter about the graph: “You’re literally killing us.”

I’m friends with all these musicians who would just murder someone for a university job and you’ve got 85-year-olds who just won’t leave. Anyone can have that job; there’s no reason for them to be in these positions.

Jonathan Pfeffer: How does Fallon fit into all of this?

SH: He’s a company man. Lorne Michaels put him there. Fallon is just like what the boomers in charge think that people slightly younger than me want. Jimmy Fallon’s show is just like YouTube turned into late night TV where it’s like, “Jimmy Fallon does karaoke with Drew Barrymore.”

JP: What broke my heart about Conan getting shafted by NBC was that he was a high-profile advocate for an alternative sensibility in the culture. Conan was undoubtedly mainstream, but he created a space in mainstream comedy that celebrated art and experimentation. Conan’s excitement was palpable when any comedians who were trying to push formal boundaries were guests on the show.

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I remember when he got the Tonight Show slot, I was excited that someone who resonated with the dada and surrealist impulses of Monty Python was going to be in this position. I keep coming back to this thought that the Tonight Show conflict is representative of an ongoing cleanse of any remotely challenging aesthetics in mainstream culture that started maybe 20 years ago.

SH: Conan was so fun and so smart and had cool people on. There were so few opportunities for disruption at that level of media…this is why I love the Ashley Simpson SNL lip sync scandal because you never see the cracks in that level of media. When it happens, aside from the fact that it’s hilarious, it’s amazing where just for a brief moment, it’s like, “Oh, this is total bullshit.” 

What you said brought up a memory for me. I didn’t have cable when I was a kid until I was in seventh or eighth grade, but I would get to watch MTV when I visited my uncle’s house. One New Year’s Eve, I was watching the MTV 100 songs of the year countdown. At some point, my uncle starts saying, “The number one song is going to be Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad.’” I was like, “No way. There’s no way that’s going to be number one. That song’s not that popular.” For like an hour he’s rolling me, “It’s going to be ‘Bad.’ It’s going to be ‘Bad.’ Watch! It’s going to be ‘Bad.’” Just trying to wind me up. When it got to number one, it was “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

I love that album as did everyone who was into that kind of music. Not only was he wrong and I was right, but that the thing I was right about about was mine. I just remember sitting there silently being so happy that he was wrong and he said nothing.

That feels so similar to Conan getting fucked out of the Tonight Show. It’s my uncle saying, “Fuck you, you’re not going to get to be right.” That’s what they won’t let us have now. They won’t just let us take over. It just feels like these people have just completely robbed us of an ability to have a world that we want. Look around: the Earth is on fire. They won’t relinquish control of anything and they’re also taking everyone down with them. It’s all the same shit of these fucking assholes who won’t die and they won’t leave. Not only will they not leave their jobs, but they’re really territorial in a petty way.

JP: Even before NBC reneged on the Tonight Show deal, I remember constantly hearing this boomer narrative that their Gen X children couldn’t handle the pressure that came along with positions of power. How could you possibly be steer a major television franchise if you didn’t have real problems like a great depression or world war?

SH: Yeah, why can’t we take care of ourselves? Why are we so sad? These people smashed any ability we had to be ourselves. That’s why the Jay Leno thing was like, “No, you can’t have this.” They didn’t need to do that. It was the prime-time late night slot. Ratings would have recovered. Everyone would have watched it. There was absolutely no financial or practical need to put Jay Leno back on TV. It was purely because Jay Leno was like, “You know what? I don’t want to give this person my job.” NBC was probably run by people who were all Jay Leno’s age and they said, “Yeah, come on back.” Leno’s return killed late night TV as a cultural phenomenon.

JP: My recollection of that moment was it had the feeling of a fun party that was about to get bigger, but somehow it was going to remain fun. Then someone called the cops while the party was still jumping. “Party’s over. Everybody go home.”

SH: “Everyone get the fuck out. Go back to 11:30.” I just think that I’m so interested in this because it feels so insignificant, but it just feels so tied to the parent who is just unable to care about their kid coming home with orange soda splattered all over their shirt. Just like, “Don’t fucking bother me. We’re just going to stay in charge and only care about ourselves.”

Boomers don’t want their kids to be happy. Well, I think a better way to put it is they don’t want their kids to be happier than them. Conan was funnier than Jay Leno. That’s what’s threatening. It was better. What boomers can’t accept is the idea that their kids are better than them. They can’t deal with the fact that we’re happier. It disrupts what they need to feel valuable.

JP: Conan was subversive; I can’t think of many other comedians who happily, uncritically embody the insipidness of the status quo more than Leno.

SH:Crunch all you want, we’ll make more!” I think comedy is so important to sad people in my generation and yours. “Freaks and Geeks” is amazing about this. The Bill Haverchuck character’s obsession with Bill Murray. You’re just so sad and watching “Stripes” is just the greatest fucking thing in the world. That’s what Conan was part of.

JP: I remember hearing Conan complain 15 years ago about some handsome, well-adjusted comedian. “This space is for us! Why do you even want to be involved in comedy?” I felt like Conan’s comedy was attuned to the loneliness of outsiders. What even is Leno’s brand of comedy?

SH: I think he’s an extension of the Bing Crosby guy who makes old people chuckle.

JP: He’s a classic entertainer who puts people at ease, makes the audience feel comfortable.

SH: Yeah, just the most normal shit in the world. Do you know that story about Tracy Morgan? Jimmy Fallon was famous for breaking on SNL. Tracy Morgan said in an interview that if you watch his SNL episodes, you’ll notice Fallon never did that in any of his sketches. Tracy told him, “If you do this in my sketches, I’ll fucking kill you.” This is because he was doing it on purpose to draw attention to himself. Which is why Fallon is a company man. It’s just an extension of this selfishness, you know?

JP: Conan was always such a generous host. It was touching to see him set up his guests to look good.

SH: He just seemed absolutely delighted to be doing the stupid thing he was doing. “Can you believe we’re doing this on TV?” Everyone loved it. And they took it away from us [Makes fart noise].

Sarah Hennies (b. 1979, Louisville, KY) is a composer based in Upstate NY whose work is concerned with a variety of musical, sociopolitical, and psychological issues including including queer & trans identity, psychoacoustics, and the social and neurological conditions underlying creative thought. She is primarily a composer of acoustic ensemble music, but is also active in improvisation, film, and performance art.

One response to “Everyone Loved It and They Took It Away from Us: Sarah Hennies on Conan O’Brien and the 2010 Tonight Show Conflict”

  1. The bit about how Boomers don’t want anyone to be happier than them rings so true. It goes far beyond art and into sexuality and gender as well.

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