Conan O’Brien is the new face of entertainment—the new, huge, flat, pale face of entertainment. That is not a revolutionary statement, but Conan has in fact staged a revolution that may, in the long run, redefine what we consider “show business.” As the city of Las Vegas preps for the biggest redhead since a certain vegetable-topped prop comedian came to town, we would be well-served to consider the bigger picture.
All right, for those who may have been stuck on an Amish farm for the past few months (you know who you are), here’s what happened to Conan: He had a show, got a bigger show with a better time slot, lost that show and time slot to a man with a bigger chin, and now has a Twitter account, a live tour and a cable show that will launch in November on TBS. Meantime, Conan’s epic struggle against The Man (NBC) has galvanized an ever-expanding base of fans. This has been spurred on by the virality of the World Wide Web and the relatable anger of untold masses of laid-off and otherwise spurned workers. His plight happened at just the right moment to become a phenomenon.
The support for Conan has been legendary. Badges that say “I’m with Coco” (that’s what his fans call him) can be found everywhere, from Facebook profiles to Twitter feeds. Buttons and stickers are found in real life as well—most recently and nefariously worn by Slash when he performed on Jay Leno’s post-coup Tonight Show. After being fired and accepting a severance deal that would keep him off TV for most of the year, Conan immediately amassed nearly 900,000 Twitter followers, and recently, the Lamar Advertising Co. dedicated thousands of its highway video billboards around the country to displaying Conan’s latest tweet, free of charge. That’s a zeitgeist, people.
In the midst of all this, I offered Conan a job. It seemed the civilized thing to do for a guy who was so clearly getting the shaft from his current employer. I run programming for an online TV network called Revision3. We’re just like a regular TV network except we distribute all of our shows online. (Get with it people: None of the cool kids watch TV on TV anymore.) I figured, hell, if Conan’s getting all this grief about time slots from a traditional network, it may be time for him to come to the Internet, where there are no time slots—and no censorship. He never got back to us, which I took as a “yes”—until the TBS late-night-talk-show deal went through.
That’s OK with me. After 15 years of watching the self-deprecating genius constantly deconstruct and redefine “late-night show” on network TV, I can’t wait for him to do it again on cable.
First, however, he’s taking a stab at redefining the oldest entertainment genre: the live stage show. Conan is still contractually barred from airing a show or even appearing on television. So, earlier this month, he launched the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour,” which stops in Las Vegas on May 1-2.
Conan is taking what was once a television format and bringing it into the live theater environment, complete with his resplendent sidekick, Andy Richter. The tour has kicked off, and the initial reviews are positive. I caught the show on April 23 in San Francisco, and Conan seems very comfortable in this new genre where, as he puts it, “This is the first time anyone has paid to see me … and none of you can change the channel!”
In addition to not being able to channel surf, the network and time-slot issues are also irrelevant. It’s all about him and how he will entertain us in this new/old medium. The tour practically sold out the moment tickets went on sale (in Vegas, the Palms quickly added a second show, for which seats are still available), and it was primarily marketed over Twitter.
The question for us to answer in the wake of Conan madness is, does the medium even matter? What’s increasingly important in this evolving media landscape are personalities rather than the networks. Audiences increasingly don’t care where they watch their favorite people; they just want to watch them. Whether they’re on NBC, TBS, Hulu, YouTube, iTunes, Twitter or the stage at the Pearl, the audience will follow.
So where does this leave the future of entertainment? I believe that as more audiences leave behind the traditional networks for greener, nerdier pastures, it opens up unorthodox opportunities for personalities of all sorts. As artists re-imagine how they will present their ideas and reach their audiences, the landscape opens up completely. Traditional television networks will become increasingly irrelevant. Just find people wherever they are and they will keep on coming back to watch. Justin Bieber was born of the Internet; Conan was born of the networks. But chances are, they—and perhaps many more entertainers like them—will eventually have a nightly live show on the Strip.
I’ll be there in the front row, live streaming it all to the Internet.