Earnest Pettie, comedy writer
I have to admit that I have been following every move in the skirmish among Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and NBC. I find less interest in the human drama of seeing a man get screwed over in front of a national audience, and I find more interest in the larger narrative of NBC’s rise, mismanagement, and subsequent fall. I couldn’t understand why this story had become such a blockbuster. After all, when the same thing happened to David Letterman in the 90’s, there was interest, but I don’t remember the world watching and reporting NBC’s every move. Part of that is the culture we have developed since then where everything is backseat quarterbacked on blogs, and no decision, anywhere in America, seems to be beyond microscopic analysis by unqualified observers (myself, included). However, it occurs to me that there may be something bigger at work here.
A couple years ago, I wrote a spec pilot about a young woman who, with no other real job prospects (this was in the wake of the 2001 recession), moves back home and joins a teaching fellows’ program. I remember that one of the major themes I wanted to work into the script and the show was a conflict between the aging teachers at the main character’s school– the baby boomers–and the younger teachers– those of my generation. It was a reflection of something I was reading about back then, the older generation’s remaining healthier longer, holding onto jobs that would’ve gone to younger workers. I was reading about the Baby Boomers’ continuing dominance of politics and culture even as the front edge of my generation was hitting their mid-thirties. I suppose each generation has always struggled to break and exceed the generation before it, but the Baby Boomers were the first generation to remain healthy enough to avoid simply giving up the fight to keep their place in society.
Which brings us to Jay Leno vs Conan O’Brien. This is a different fight than the one between Jay Leno and David Letterman was. They were contemporaries with decidedly different aesthetics and appeal. Jay Leno, despite being from the Northeast, strongly appealed to the midwest and middle America. David Letterman, despite being from the midwest, appealed to an urban demographic. It wasn’t the first time middle America had triumphed over coastal, urban America, and it would not be the last. The fight between Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno is generational. Conan O’Brien was the voice of generations X and Y, and just as a GenX icon was preparing to finally ready to take its rightful place at the center of public discourse, a Baby Boomer icon said “Not so fast… I’m not quite ready to go.” Thus a clear metaphor for a very real if abstract economic and cultural struggle crystallized and gave the younger, more net-savvy set a cause to rally around.
The uproar isn’t about Conan. It’s about what Conan stands for, and NBC doesn’t get that.