This essay by Ben Mathis-Lilley on why Conan O’Brien, haters aside, will kill as the new host of The Tonight Show, is merely probably true. However, this collective autobiography of O’Brien fans is right on the money:
Even Conan’s biggest fans are worried that he’ll fail or, worse, dumb down his act in an attempt to imitate Leno’s lucrative inanity. In this scenario, success is a more horrifying possibility than failure. I know about that last part because I’m one of those fans, a member of the demographic most likely to view Conan with love and affection: people who reached late-night-TV-watching age at around the same time Conan’s show started getting good, around 1995 or so. If you’re like me, you started watching Conan regularly at around age 13 or 14, and continued as a highly regular viewer for the next eight or nine years, your loyal fandom enabled by the fact that, as a teenager and then a college student, you had no problem staying up until 12:40 every night. (Fortunately, my turn toward marginally more responsible sleep/lifestyle choices has coincided with the rise of DVR.)
In fact, this observation is so good, I can’t believe BML doesn’t capitalize on it. This is why Conan will kill at 11:30 — because his fan base isn’t in their teens any more. We’re in our thirties, close enough, or older. We don’t even like to stay up that late, we’ve got to TiVo the damn show. And Jay Leno’s fans don’t want to stay up past eleven. The show will be a success not because Conan’s “matured” but because We Are Old.
I started seriously watching Conan in my freshman year of college; as a kid, I used to sneak downstairs to watch Johnny Carson. The Tonight Show w/ Johnny offered adulthood at its most enigmatic and alluring; with Jay, it seemed phony, bloated, contrived — above all, to be avoided. Hence, cartoons and Conan.
We’re the people who watch The Tonight Show now. Does it feel too soon?