I reserved a Conan ticket in a fit of pique, after a particularly nasty man I must deal with through work demanded my presence at a meeting I very much did not want to attend.
“Sorry,” I said, with the ease of someone with too many Walter Mitty-esque notions in her head. “I’ll be in L.A. that day.”
I’ve never been in L.A., not on any day; the day in question had not yet been set aside for anything in particular, let alone a cross-country jaunt. But the words slipped out of my mouth, and instead of being a liar, I went for spontaneous. I immediately got a ticket to Conan, and booked a ticket to L.A. It wasn’t completely mad – the fare gods were with me, so a week later, I found myself in arms’ length of Andy Richter’s podium. (Andy is a god and you should follow him on Twitter if you aren’t already. But that’s another post.)
You’ll remember the rules of “AGMIHTF Tour” from my previous post. They are simple, but broad:
- I must travel to see a man I think is good.
- However short or long the journey, during it, I must treat men with the qualities I perceive in the good man, I am visiting, regardless of response.
- I must observe the good man in his natural element, and carefully record and reflect upon the qualities I believe to be good.
- Rinse, repeat until memory of bad men has faded in wake of all the good men I’ve met.
Conan: The Assumptions
The man is hilarious, and his hilarity seems to be in inverse proportion to how carefully he follows the cue cards. He has the highest share of 18-34 age viewers in Late Night, despite being the oldest host. This is nothing short of incredible to us late-night geeks, and a testament to his incredible hard work and determination.
But being funny does not equal being good, you may say, you Platonic debater, you. And I argue that it is in the nature of his humor in which his goodness is found. First, he is the target of all his best material. I don’t think there has been a great comic with a more carefully crafted persona since Jack Benny. (Aside – I wish I could add him to my list of men to visit). Conan portrays himself as a virginal egomaniac who missed his calling as a Batman villain from the 60s. Equal parts camp and creepy, or as he has self-described more than once, “a grade-A creep.”
You would think I wouldn’t warm to this particular schtick, if only because of my own sensitivities. But Conan is a master at projecting both the mask, and the person beneath the mask. The result is, you laugh at Conan the ass and root for Conan the man. I don’t think I’m alone in this – Team Coco was a totally grassroots uprising of support for him during the Tonight Show incident. People like him, they really, really like him.
OK, so he’s his own best joke – so what?
Let me bring Benny in again. JB routinely let his whole cast get the last laugh. The blond ditzes, the balding men with the funny voices, the African-American servant. In a time when the middle-aged white man always won the day, Benny shifted the paradigm.
I think Conan is even better than Benny at this, in his remotes and in his travels. The man manages to, in no particular order: explore another culture or way of life with sincerity and humility by going out and surprising everyday people; making them laugh by playing the fool; being an American example of kindness and good grace.
Is there any more important job in the world right now than that?
I had 48 hours to get to LA and back from my small midwestern town. It was Halloween, and I ended up seated in between a woman in full 1920s Flapper glory, including feathered headband, and a young man either costumed as a hipster, or an actual hipster. Both are extraordinarily beautiful people, which makes me shy, since my default setting is the belief I am actually a frog temporarily granted human form by an ethically suspect witch. But, you see, Conan feels that way too, and that just makes him louder. We chat for a bit, then silence reigns until flight attendant stops at our row to begin flotation device demonstration. He asks hipster boy to hold his demonstration props and then starts flirtatious conversation with boy.
Boy starts to blush at whatever flight attendant says and tells us he is going to take some sleeping pills. He falls asleep on me, more specifically, my right chesticle. Boy starts to drool, prodigiously, on my sweater.
Flapper meanwhile, seems to find all of this quite funny, and she starts chatting more freely about her life. I listen, and prompt her where I can.
It’s been a few hours now, and I desperately need to pee. Boy is still sound asleep. I tell the flapper I hate to wake him to get up, she suggests I just crawl over him.
“That’s a sexual harassment suit waiting to happen,” I say, wiggling my eyebrows, feeling vaguely creepy. The flapper laughs and nods. (He looks so young to me, asleep, his closed eyelids unlined and translucent. I feel that we are decades apart, though I will later learn late on the flight that he is nine years younger than me, our age difference being exactly 1/3 of that between myself and my ex-husband.) I gently prod him with my index finger. He starts, his eyes still drugged.
“I was starting to get too comfortable,” I joke. “Dear God, what have I done?” he responds, fully realizing his current position. “We’re bonded now,” I laugh. And so we are, as simply as that. When I return to my seat, we start to talk about L.A.
But the male flight attendant keeps interrupting to talk with the boy. It’s joking banner, but I’m gradually starting to be a little alarmed. He makes two oral sex jokes, which I’m pretty sure is not in ****** Airlines Employee Handbook under best practices. When the attendant finally leaves, I say under my breath, “You’re being an awfully good sport, Charlie Brown.” Hipster says, “I get this all the time, I just deal.”
He gets sexually harassed all the time? I truly hope that’s not true, and begin to think I should offer to shut this shit down. But hipster, flapper and I keep talking, about Conan and our favorite of his recurring sketches (#staringcontest #cluelessgamer #intheyear2000). Hipster tells he he moved from Florida to L.A. to make it as a production assistant, but he is beginning to think he’s not going to make it. His plan B is to go back to school and become a film professor. I tell him that even if things don’t work out the way he expects, if he works hard and is kind, amazing things will happen (thank you, Conan). He smiles.
The final act in this tableau: Flight attendant harasses boy again, gives him his card with phone number on it and invites him to the bathroom with him.
I could not make this shit up. I tell hipster that I absolutely will tell flight attendant to pound salt; he says not to bother, but would I follow him to bathroom and keep an eye out? I do. Hipster, flapper and I hug goodbye when plane lands. Hipster throws bag over his shoulder bravely and departs. I hope he lands that next interview.
And I go to see Conan. Everyone herding us like cattle is really nice. I got in line very early so that I can gaze on the visage of Andy from close range. It works, and I am seated next to his podium. I can read the notes on his cards, see his reading glasses. He’s adorkable. Conan comes over to see Andy a few times during the show, and he’s so close I can see his makeup and the famous (it is famous, isn’t it?) vein on the outer side of his right eye that the makeup artist heroically struggles to cover night after night.
The man is rail thin, and he hums with energy and the precision of a tap dancer or an army general. Or both. His gaze isn’t beady, it’s piercing. Turns out, in person, Conan is a boss. So good was his projection of awkward persona that I actually had to see him in the flesh to recognize that he is very attractive (Which makes sense, as he is in showbiz. Duh.)
While I am thrilled to be in the presence of Conan, Andy and the others, I’m also uncomfortable. It feels unnatural to see them in person, intrusive almost. I’m used to more vicarious enjoyment.
My favorite joke of the evening was about the White House, press statements on slavery, and the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Has Conan been reading the new Ron Chernow book, I wonder, because I have. My new familiarity with Grant makes the joke quite hysterical to me, and I laugh and say loudly, “that’s right” after he gives me the punchline. There is the briefest of pauses in his delivery and he looks in my direction (I am in the front row, after all) sideways with a little smile, though I don’t think he can actually see me because of the lights. And he does a little improvisation off that. Favorite part!
Well, except for the end, when he hugs Andy and the comedian guest. Conan and Andy hugging was worth every penny I spent on this trip. I should have mentioned another quality of Conan’s that is part of his goodness – his loyalty to his crew and his friends. I felt privileged to see this affection between the two men who have worked together for decades.
After the show, I’m waiting for my Uber on the Warner Brothers lot. I strike up a conversation with a man visiting from Canada, who works in Newfoundland. We have a conversation in which I’m extroverted, funny and kind in between long bouts of listening to him being extroverted, funny and kind. Conan rubbed off, however temporarily. It takes an hour and a half to get to LAX; the cab driver and I talk a blue streak all the way there. It’s completely unlike me, and completely enjoyable.
- Protect the guests on your couch.
- Let awkward define you instead of limit you.
- Talk to strangers and let them have the last laugh.
- Build a bromance for the ages.
- Work really hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.