Full Circle: Conan O’Brien and The Cancellation of Lopez Tonight
On a rainy afternoon in the spring of 2010, the staff and supporters of Conan O’Brien held a rally outside of the Universal Studios lot in North Hollywood. They were out in support of a 17 year television veteran with no place on TV anymore. The Tonight Show had been cancelled and the last weeks of the show played out amid an unprecedented swell of internet support that skyrocketed Conan to a level of exposure and stardom he’d never reached before. The “vile” Jay Leno stepped back into his old slot hosting the Tonight Show and the victim, Conan, was crushed. He did a interview for 60 minutes to mixed reviews. He went on the road and packed concert halls during his stage tour. He signed a new deal for a show. His triumphant return had come, on a show called “Conan.”
Today, TBS canceled Lopez Tonight and the fan fair and internet support for George Lopez will pale in comparison to that which Conan received. The irony of the situation won’t be lost on the american public, however. Conan O’Brien, with his lovable, self-deprecating, acidic style of humor, has done to someone else exactly what Jay Leno and NBC did to him. Many Conan supporters, myself included, rejoiced when Conan signed a new deal with TBS. He’d have more freedom. He’d be just like the Conan we all remembered from Late Night, uninhibited and wacky, free from the network pressures he felt on the Tonight Show. Most fans saw this as a great thing. A victory for the little guy. Most fans also ignored the fact that TBS decided to move George Lopez to a later time-slot but with good reason. George Lopez endorsed the move and smiled with Conan in press conferences. He did this because he had to. Conan is a bigger name in late night and he draws a bigger audience. He has more cache and he has tons of those up and coming, intelligent, 18-49 year old fans that advertisers love so much. Lopez didn’t. So he’s gone. When Leno hosted the tonight show he brought a broad audience that broadcast TV loves so much. He was the perfect everyman. When Conan took over the Tonight show, he drew a niche audience that broadcast TV doesn’t want. So NBC tried to move his time slot. He didn’t want to move and couldn’t expand his audience quickly enough, so they canceled him. The similarities between these stories don’t make Conan the villain that we all made Leno out to be, and it doesn’t make Lopez the victim that we all made Conan out to be either. It should give us pause though.
Conan’s new show is aptly named. It’s the perfect name for a late night show in fact. Each of these shows are really about the host and “Conan” is about Conan. Right down to the interviews. Watch a Conan interview some time. He’s wacky and jokes about himself awkwardly and that makes him lovable. At the end of the day though, it’s all about him, he’s using the person in front of him to get to his joke in those interviews. As great a guy as he might be and as poignant as his “if you work hard” moment was on the Tonight Show, he’s still a TV host. He’s still a star. And so is George Lopez. And so is Jay Leno. That doesn’t make them bad guys. It’s just the truth.
When NBC cancelled the tonight show we felt like yet again the little guy was being stepped on. We saw a bit of ourselves in Conan. We’ve all been let down. We’ve all had dreams that didn’t pan out. It became hard for many fans to just see the truth, that oft heard cliche “it’s just business.” Conan missed out on his dream of a long Tonight Show run and Lopez’s late night dream has come to an end as well but none of us should feel sad. They’re job is to deliver an audience that can generate a profit for their network. They know that and they know how fleeting TV stardom can be, they’ve seen it come and go at their interview desks year to year. The people we love on TV are not like us and in the world they survive in, they can’t avoid stepping on some people’s toes. They need to step on toes and they’re ok doing it because at the end of the day, it’s a need for personal success that drives them and its that same need that’s driven them in the past. There’s nothing wrong with us gathering for a rally, and showing our support and there’s nothing wrong with feeling bad about Lopez Tonight being cancelled. But we should always remember who these people actually are, what they are, and that sadly yes, “it’s just business.”