Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Conan II: You really shouldn't have encouraged me

Part One of this far-too-long post is over yonder. We return to the Late Night With Conan O’Brien taping, where our hero, battered, bruised, and cowed, sits near the back of the theatre. The taping is about to begin.…

Their raid into the audience complete, the Max Weinberg’s Psychological warfare unit returned to their glittery barracks to one side of the stage. Andy Ritcher lumbered to his booth off to the other side of the stage. And then a great hush fell over the studio… Ladies and gentlemen, Conan O’Brien!

APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! Aaaargh! I didn’t notice the sign, and I’m so dazed from the abuse, I forgot to clap. A glowering page glances at me, nudges his colleague – I start hammering my hands together with a vigor that could crush a golf ball, would security had let me through with one.

Meanwhile, the curtains in front of the stage have parted, and out bounded the star of the show, a gawky mess of dangling limbs, goofy hair and dead, soulless eyes.

The applause sign flickered madly, but it needn’t have – we knew what to do. We rose, five hundred quislings welcoming the tanks in Oslo, and gave him a standing ovation. Yet it wasn’t enough… the light kept flashing, demanding more APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! it went on far longer than the sight of a man walking into a room warranted. Finally, as Conan came forward, he raised his hands for quiet – we double checked with the sign to make sure it was ok, and slowly stopped clapping.

“Well, that’s all the time we have tonight,” he said, and we did laugh obediently, with a hint of hysteria. But wait, what was that? A flash of movement, by the camera. Is that guy holding cue cards? That was the first joke of the evening? You mean all of this – the abuse, the threats, the menacing stack of cattle-prods off to the side of the stage, all of it was in aid of using us for the set-up for a lame joke? I feel so used.

That moment would be one of the few in which Conan interacted with the audience at all. As the monologue continued, I was surprised – naïve me – to realize that he was not addressing his words to us in the studio at all, but rather to the camera now blocking the hallway through which we had entered. In the vague mental picture I’d had of late night television, I’d always believed that there were people sitting in the general vicinity of the camera, to whom the host was facing. Not so – the performance was for the camera – we were merely to act as prompts for the audience at home, creating an atmosphere of “excitement” – because after all, spontaneous applause sounds much the same as applause extracted under duress.

This was driven home for me when I watched the episode as it was broadcast later that night. At one point in the monologue, he started a joke “So, the 7/11 convenience store chain announced that they were going to start selling their own brand of wine [pause for laughter] they’re going to make it out of grapes that had been sitting in the store for three years.”

On the broadcast, this punchline got big laughs, while the set up only got a few titters. In fact, it was the other way around – the idea of 7/11 wine was funnier than the joke Conan’s writers spun from it. However, with the miracle of sound editing, the audience at home was convinced that Conan was knocking us dead.

Of course, we jumpy and gun-shy at this point, and so were inclined to make offerings to appease our sign-flashing overlords whether overtly demanded or not: other lines that inexplicably got applause, sans prompting, and before their accompanying punchlines were delivered: “President Obama is visiting China” (Yay! Clap clap! Woo!) “So, research shows that people are watching more TV” (Yay! Woo! Clap clap! Wait – is this a good thing?) “Stephen Tyler and Joe Perry have announced that Aerosmith is not breaking up,” (Yay! Woo! Clap clap clap! Yay! Wait – this is not a good thing).

On to the next joke! “There was a study done that proved that big breasted women…” at which point he was interrupted by a woman’s cry of “woo!” from somewhere behind me in the audience. I cringed: we aren’t allowed to independently “woo!” They specifically, and very emphatically told us that there was to be no “woo!” permitted outside of the context of general applause. Averting my eyes in anticipation of the crack of the Greyshirts’ pistol as she was summarily executed, but Conan was merciful: he waved them off, noting that she did possess very large breasts, which did pleaseth him.

The joke continued: large breasted women, according to this study, apparently have higher I.Q.’s than their less endowed sisters: he was interrupted again by applause from exactly half the women in the audience. I also heard some guy audibly remark behind me “but… that doesn’t make any sense.” I hope he wasn’t trying to impress his date, because in so doing he either called a buxom woman dumb or a smart girl flat. Either way, he proved that that people with no breasts are often the most intellectually handicapped of all.

Lost in this reverie, I missed the punchline (well, can’t be bothered to repeat it – it boiled down to “men are pigs”) but I was brought back to the studio through the insistent blare of the band starting up the recessional as Conan finished up his monologue.

You might remember from my previous post that I had come with Dylan, from Amynah’s lab, and his coworker Chris, and his wife. Now, here’s something about Chris that is important: he’s a Republican. A thinks-Sarah-Palin’s great, huntin’ fishin’ traditional-marriage-protecting healthcare=communism Rush Limbaugh-listening Republican. A Republican who disdained a ride to the studio in my Japanese-import Honda Civic, with it’s un-American fuel economy and conspiracy-of-the-One-World-government metric odometer, in favour of his patriotic SUV.* His kind is a rare bird in Los Angeles, and his views are alien to my worldview, but Amynah assures me he is a very nice, if somewhat argumentative guy. (*Though, granted, that might have been because he had to be somewhere else after the show).

His politics would be utterly irrelevant, except that Dylan had no idea who the guests were going to be when he made the reservations. I suspect, given that we’re heading into Oscar-movie season, that he had been hoping for a Hollywood star of some variety.

I invite you to imagine the general disappointment when Conan looked at the camera, and uttered the most bald-faced and nonsensical lie I’ve ever heard: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got a very exciting show tonight – Al Gore’s here!”

The applause sign was flashing insistently, the band was wailing away, the audience was cheering. Dylan was clapping dejectedly. I hazarded a glance down the row to where Chris sat. He was scowling, his arms crossed.

Suddenly, I knew that it was going to be an entertaining evening after all.

We were now in what would presumably become a commercial break. Conan took his place behind his desk, in front of a window that looked over downtown Los Angeles (sadly, I regret to inform you, this too was fake. Were there a window in that spot, it would look over a Lovecraftian spectacle of horror – the writhing breeding colony of comedy trolls from where the warm-up comic sprang).

Meanwhile, the band continued to drive home subliminal messages to compel our compliance (why else play a cover of the Clash’s “Clampdown?”). Conan sat behind his desk, reviewing his notes, Ritcher perched perched behind his announcer’s kiosk, like a kid at a lemonade stand on a rainy day. He doesn’t look very comfortable in that APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! And we’re back!

First thing first, Conan tells us what will be happening on tomorrow’s show: “Academy Award Winner Reese Witherspoon will be here!” APPLAUSE! “Star of the new movie Precious, Gaboures Sidibe!” APPLAUSE! “And musical guest Kris Allen” (who? Nevermind!) APPLAUSE!

Again, for viewers at home, there was some creative sound-editing going on, because it turns out that while I was just happy that tonight’s guest was someone I’d heard of, my fellow inmates were less pleased. Chris, of course, was fuming that he had driven halfway across Los Angeles in order to breathe the same air as the arch-fiend, but he was not alone in his disappointment. The words “Reese Witherspoon” and “tomorrow” elicited a collective groan from the crowd: instead an evening swooning over the sweet nothings uttered by America’s Sweetheart® we were getting an evening of thinly-veiled digs about our lifestyle choices from America’s Sanctimonious Uncle®.

Zipping right along, Ritcher was allowed to grace the stage with Conan for a “In the Year 3000” segment, in which I noticed that what few funny lines there were went to the host: Ritcher strained mightily, but failed to make funny a joke about baseball player Sammy Sosa bleaching his skin to join NASCAR. It occurred to me that if it is the writers who are coming up with all this stuff anyway, would it kill them to share out the few scraps of humour they generate, instead of sacrificing their entire harvest to the insatiable maw of Conan as if appeasing some jealous god? The man’s the host after all, he doesn’t need to APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE!… and we’re back to commercial: the band is playing a salsa version of “Stay in your seats and no one gets hurt.” Ritcher has been banished back to his lemonade stand in the corner and APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! We’re back, as Conan introduces Al Gore.

APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! Us marionettes rise on our strings to give Gore a standing ovation, apparently for navigating the distance between the studio’s stage and Conan’s couch without being blocked by the Supreme Court. The elephant in the room (yes, that was a clever reference to the Republican Party logo. No need to congratulate me for my cleverness – I’ve got it covered) was sitting on his hands, his eyes shooting daggers at the stage.

The interview was a strange experience. I’d seen late night talk shows before, so I wasn’t expecting a Frost/Nixon-type interrogation. Nontheless, something about seeing it in person made me contrast it with how I conduct my interviews: a question, listen to the response, a follow-up question, maybe a clarification, then on to the next topic.

After the initial queries about Gore’s Nobel Prize win, Conan brought up the book the former VP was on the show to promote. There’s a children’s version – Conan says he hasn’t read it, then goes on a tangent about scaring his kids with predictions of climate doom. Gore makes polite noises about the youth of today solving the problems of tomorrow – I steal a glance at Chris, who is clenching his fists. No matter - Conan’s now on to geothermal power… Gore says there’s enough to power the US for 35,000 years – what? How? What happens after that? Do we run out of Earth? – no matter! Conan’s off windmills killing birds, largely as excuse to show funny looking graph in Gore’s books. The graph is duly laughed at by everyone – I look at Chris, who doesn’t want to do anything positive Gore-related, but would like to believe he’s being ridiculed. So he splits the difference, and rather than laugh, he smirks, angrily.

The graph purported to show windmills were not – as some opponents claim – as much a threat to ornithological life as your average housecat or tall building. “It’s not a real problem” asserted Gore confidently. “Wait” thought I, “Windmills are usually located in different ecological zones than housecats or skyscrapers – we can spare a few million pigeons, after all, but not so many whooping cranes.” No matter! Conan’s off to Afghanistan now – should we invade them for their geothermal stores when we run out in a few millennia? No, it’s something about Obama’s current choice, and Gore’s diplomatically saying he wished Johnson (wink wink) had figured out an exit strategy when he went into to Vietnam (wink wink) all those years ago. Chris’s wife is restraining her beau with a whiteknuckled grip, as his face turns purple from the effort of not screaming “Liar” when Gore suggested that perhaps the presence of American soldiers might be resented by the freedom-craving citizens of Central Asia, and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! We’re done with Gore, and now on to our next guest – some dude from a sitcom I don’t watch. He’s amusing, but he’s clearly terrified of by the juxtaposition of Conan’s idiot smile and his pitiless stare, as he’s squirming like a five year old with a bladder disorder. They pretend to joke about Star Wars, and then the guest (Jim Parsons) oh-so-casually mentions he used to do a commercial where he had to pretend he was raised by wolves and oh what a coincidence we happen to have that commercial right here says Conan. They ran the commercial, which featured Parsons pretending to nurse at a wolf’s teat. The APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! sign made its demands above me, but by now I couldn’t be bothered. I was wrung out, wearied by the sham. We in the audience were clearly key to the feeling of spontaneity a show like this required. But couldn’t they give us a little credit? Did they seriously believe that we didn’t know this was discussed and possibly rehearsed ahead of time? Stop lying to me, Conan!

“Well, we’ll have to have you back, you’re so much fun to talk to,” said Conan to his horrified guest and APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! we’re off to commercial.

Now, despite having just said how much he enjoyed talking to his guest, during the intermission, while we waited for the musical act to set up, Conan – despite sitting right next to Parsons – did not say a word to him. That menial task he left to Ritcher. Instead, he got up, wandered to the front of the stage, surveyed the huddled masses arrayed before him with a sociopathic blank expression, wandered back behind his desk, and stood for three minutes next to the apparently animated chat his supposedly buddy-buddy sidekick and “so interesting” guest were having, while making no effort to participate or even feign interest.

Observing this strange non-interaction, I was inclined to chalk it up to our host’s focus: he was clearly psyching himself up for the last part of the show, preparing his lines and delivery in his APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! and we’re back!

“Ladies and gentlemen… Jason Mraz, the Tonight Show band, and the San Diego Gospel Choir!”

That was it. So, apparently, not psyching himself up so much as being a bit of a jerk. But no matter, we had the musical guest to endure! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE!

Again, having re-watched the show after the fact, I can assure you that the song that was broadcast was not at all the song I heard in the studio. The song that was broadcast was a low key, happy little number with an uplifting chorus. Such are the wonders of mixing boards and sound engineers. Lacking those ameliorating mediators, what we experienced, in that over amplified echo chamber of a studio, was a man miming at playing guitar while occasionally signaling his distress via an improvised semaphor system – that being the only way he had to communicate over the cacophony emanating from behind him. If you watch the show online, you can see the panicked look in the eyes of the choir members behind them – they can’t hear themselves think, let alone sing, have no idea if they’re in the same time-zone as the song’s key, and are clearly unsure as to whether they’ll survive the racket long enough to see their loved ones again. It was an auditory horror show – if a jet engine opened to full throttle been added to the mix, it would have not been out of place, and in fact might have been an improvement.

The song mercifully clanged to an end, and we all shifted in our seats – finally, now we could leave. Right? No, not quite. Conan leaped on stage, shaking hands with the musicians as we pounded our palms bloody at the behest of the sadistic bastard running the APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! sign. But still, they would not let us go. Eventually, our arms tired, and the clapping petered out. Conan came forward, and sang a comical little ditty to thank us for showing up. Then, in a puff of sulfurous black smoke, he was gone. Andy Ritcher walked out a side door, Jim Parsons went through the back stage. The musicians chatted amongst themselves, packing up their instruments. And still, they would not let us leave.

When will they let us leave?


JC Martin and The Unknown Musical Guests said...

Ah, finally! A Los An-g-eles experience comparable to an extended and misguided bike-trek through the Alsatian hinterlands.

I mean, except for the enforced intellectual sodomy.

Travis said...

My reading this was a perfect illustration of the way people on the interwebs only read things that agree with their preconceptions and enforce their preformed opinions. If only it wasn't so enjoyable.