Monday, January 18, 2010

Late Night Looney Tunes

          When Conan O'Brien first walked onto The Tonight Show stage last summer, true fans of O'Brien and his cerebral, sometimes silly, sometimes profound, always sharp humor, knew something was wrong. For weeks, I kept telling myself it was the backdrop that surrounds his lanky frame during his monologue. The cartoonishness of the semi-translucent, sky-blue field with a muted glittery outline of a symmetrically choppy Pacific, flat-bottomed clouds, and a skyline silhouette that wouldn't seem out of place in a children's book is quite a
departure from the urban sharpness of the smoky, blue and black, angled-brick-ish facade of the old Late Night backdrop.

          As the months went by, it became clear that the backdrop was only a subtle manifestation of something bigger going on behind the scenes at Tonight. O'Brien seemed uncomfortable. He's never been a great interviewer, but it's more than that. The jokes weren't Conan jokes. Sometimes he even seemed irritated. Where were the thought-provoking premises? Where was the unapologetic irreverence? What happened to the twisted, yet somehow appropriate non-sequitors?  Truthfully, some of those elements were there individually, but the final product was more than slightly off target.  It was like Conan Lite. I knew O'Brien's move to 11:30 would mean a lowering of the humor denominator, but I didn't think it would be like this. Then, about 3 months into Conan's brief stint on the venerable late night outlet, the tenor of the show seemed to change. The humor got sharper, at least a little. It wasn't like the New York days, but it was close. Yeah, baby... Conan's back. 
          The humor stayed on that course for a week or three before veering back to the middle of the road and remaining there for again, what seemed like a few weeks. Then it sharpened again for a few weeks. I didn't watch every night, but from what I've seen, it continued in this fashion, with the selection of jokes that made it into the show oscillating between Jay-Leno-mainstream-banality, and inching-toward-the-real-Conan.  Then NBC started talking about local affiliates complaining about Jay's 10-O'clock show being a poor lead-in for their late news broadcasts and all hell broke loose.
          In digital video-editing, the editor has myriad options to get from one shot to the next. Different transitions elicit varying levels of emotional and intellectual reactions from the viewer, thus adding to the roller coaster-effect that's integral to good story-telling . A quick dissolve is used mainly to soften the visual blow of the switch. A slow dissolve usually indicates a jump ahead in time. On the other hand, an angled wipe, common in the Star Wars films and which hearkens back to the earlier days of film, often indicates a shift to another scene that is happening simultaneously. And there are probably about a thousand special effect transitions that may or may not have an intended purpose. Some are just for show.
          A veteran video editor I once worked with said something that stuck with me: "The most powerful tool an editor has is a straight cut." A straight cut is when the picture you're seeing simply changes in the blink of an eye to something different with no embellishment whatsoever. One thirtieth of a second you're looking at Darth Vader's face as he waits in line among other Star Wars characters (including a couple who got married at the event) to see the premier of a new Star Wars movie.  The next thirtieth of a second, you're looking at Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, cigar in mouth, humping the Sith Lord's leg.  While in this example, the choice of transition may be an obvious one, it clearly illustrates the point--no other transition would work better in that situation than the simplest and oldest of all moving picture transitions--the straight cut. 

          A less obvious example of the impact of the straight cut is seen in sketches that come during or after Conan's monologue and before the guest segments, such as "If They Mated" in which the faces of two celebrities are "combined" to get an idea of what their offspring might look like.  For example, if Eva Longoria and Tony Parker had a child, here's how it might look:     


The impact of the humor of the exaggerated grotesqueness of such images was, on Late Night, enhanced by the use of a straight cut to transition to it from the side-by-side shot of Longoria and Parker.  Obviously, the picture itself is shocking enough, but with a straight cut, it hits you right in the face.  The editing worked well in combination with O'Brien's humor.  With other humor, different in tone and premise, such as Jay Leno's-- which could be called the polar opposite of O'Brien's--the straight cut might not work as well, if at all.  This Tonight Show monologue segment about the new Lincoln pennies, which aired August 24th, about three months after O'Brien's debut, illustrates the effect:

The Lincoln Pennies segment, which is full of dissolves, has been removed from Hulu. 
Sure, the humor is vintage Conan, but on Late Night, it would have been all straight cuts, and if you think that's not a big deal, just ask Martin Scorsese.  I'm disinclined to believe Conan's L.A. production people weren't aware of this.  
          Throughout O'Brien's brief tenure at the helm of Tonight, dissolves were predominantly chosen over straight cuts, thus further diluting the effectiveness of humor that already had most of the punch taken out of it, most likely by meddling network executives counting on Conan's loyal followers to remain loyal while toning down his humor in an attempt to entice as many of Jay's fans as possible to stick with the time-slot.  A comment Conan made from his desk one night all but confirmed the creative struggle going on behind the scenes.  With the back of his hand held up flat by the opposite side of his mouth and with a touch of sarcasm, he said, as an aside presumably meant for his producer, or maybe the network executive in charge of production, something to the effect of, "Ha, ha.  I made another joke."  
          In regard to the writing and selection of material for the show, I'm not sure that a happy medium between Jay's and Conan's humor even exists.  If there is a happy medium, it's name is Johnny Carson-humor and there will never be another who can handle the job with the perfect balance of wit, irreverence, and charm the way Johnny did.   Conan's Conan and Jay's Jay and finding neutral ground between their styles is like trying to integrate the philosophies of James Carville and Rush Limbaugh.  It's a recipe for disaster.
          I find myself thinking of the difference in humor among late night talk show icons in terms of great cartoon franchises.  Johnny Carson was Warner Brothers--just the right amount of irreverence and cleverness to be palatable for adults without being offensive or alienating.  David Letterman is Ren & Stimpy, the original highly irreverent host who turned the genre on it's head.  Conan, with his steady stream of underlying radical intellectualism and social commentary, peppered with bizarre silliness is, of course, The Simpsons (He was a writer with the show before Late Night)...not Super Mario.

Jay Leno is Disney.
          It's no stretch to think that there's a little New York-L.A. rivalry thing behind it all, which accurately signifies the cumulative effect of the whole charade.  Rivalry, as in, "Welcome to L.A.  You want straight cuts?  Go back to New York.  This is L.A. and we'll edit the show the way we want."  The sharpness and the grittiness of Conan's humor just doesn't work in LA.  When he frantically runs out of the studio in search of mischief, he emerges on to a quiet street in front of plain white wall possibly with the sleep-inducing sound of a far-off automobile droning in the background.  When you land on the sidewalk in front of Rockefeller Center you don't know what you're going to see or hear other than at least the high-energy din of midtown-Manhattan traffic. 
          The reactions of the players in Triumph's travels is telling as well.  In New York, when Triumph showed up to expose the absurdity, or maybe the hypocrisy, of one of the many social institutions or activities he covered, such as a block-long line of fanatics--mostly adults--dressed in highly authentic-looking Star Wars garb for a movie premier, or whatever may have been the choice that week, many of the players would go right along.  While it was obvious that some of those Skywalker wannabes weren't exactly thrilled with Triumph's slights (and probably deserving of them), it was clear that others appreciated the humor and just played along.  When Triumph showed up at high-end L.A. spa for pets, where dogs and cats get pampered like movie stars at triple-digit rates--an activity every bit as absurd as dressing up as a wookie for a movie premier, and a bit more vain-- the woman who ran the place actually acted like she was above participating in the sketch.   It was at that point that it became clear to me that Conan + L.A. is a bad formula.
          For a combination of reasons, Conan's lack of success on Tonight was simply the result of being out of his element in the sprawling land of swimmin' pools and movie stars.  I don't mean to rip on L.A., as I've never been there.  It's just that Coco and that town are far from a match made in heaven.  He belongs in New York and hopefully the powers that be at Fox will realize this and persuade him to move back to that place where he fits in perfectly with the sharp irreverence and hap-hazard energy you can only find there.  Conan + New York + Fox should work just fine. 


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