On Thursday night, Conan O’Brien hosted what he has said would be his final late-night television episode, on his last late-night television program. He began on TV as a largely unknown 30-year-old in 1993 with exactly the kind of pedigree you would’ve expected then: Harvard-taught, an alumnus of both TheSimpsons and Saturday Night Live, an advocate for the weird and disruptive trends emerging in comedy to which, despite him being an Irish-Catholic Massachusetts native, he had a singular pulse.
My introduction to Conan’s work was via Late Night With Conan O’Brien, the show he hosted as the wedge between his beloved Johnny Carson and Jay Leno and which was repurposed as a day-after lead-in to The Daily Show on Comedy Central for a while. When it came time for Conan to assume his seat at the top of NBC’s hierarchy, it suffered from poor ratings and a shift back to late-night along with the Tonight Show name, which Conan would fundamentally not accept. A back-and-forth ensued, and Conan eventually ceded the seat, leaving us bereft of him for a time while he popped up on tour and at music festivals – more on that later.
I understand that his is mainly a slightly-older generation of an audience, the tweeners that both lived to experience Nevermind in real time, cognizant of it or not, and also know how to navigate social media without sparking fights at a dinner table, but my friends and I – white and well-off-ish enough as we were – liked Conan better than any of the others mostly because we never knew what to expect.
Below is a list, mostly off the top of my head, of my personal favorite Conan segments, recurring and otherwise. I know this isn’t the end, but HBOMax’s app is horrendous, and anyway, it isn’t as widely accessible as he has been for thirty years otherwise. Conan, we only wish you well, as you ever wished us.
It’s almost guilt-inducing to laugh at anything right now. Aside from the scornful, halfhearted chuckles any of us get from seeing anything people with a higher Q-score than I have deem “newsworthy,” genuine joy begetting laughter is akin to heartbreak. For every laugh, there are countless tears, and even (especially?) if they’re happening elsewhere, you’re aware of them and their beholders, and you become innately attuned to that reflexive awareness. Laughing to keep from crying almost becomes communal.
The thing about laughter, though, at least usually, is that it’s spontaneous – we expect the things we love to make us smile, whether it be foster pet success stories, an ELI5 display and accompanying graphic of how light moves through space or a book by a favored author. This is trusted comfort, something we can at least give a courtesy smile, as if remembering the one dog, or the one gif, or the one line from a book we were forced to read in high school that brought us here.
Wall Street in the American imagination is simultaneously held in a state of contempt and awe. It’s the site of both magic and misery.
The name “Wall Street” itself has become a shorthand to denote the capitalist class. Yet, Wall Street is only a segment of this class, known as Finance Capital.
Finance Capital has become a growing segment within capitalism since the 1970s due to the decline in American manufacturing. Manufacturing took a dive during the 1970s in America due to the postwar recovery of European industries and the emergence of Asian competitors. Big swings in oil prices during the OPEC crisis of 1973, as well as inflationary spending from the Vietnam War, also broke the halcyon days of American prosperity, to which many politicians and their constituents today look to return rather than an anachronism.
Something leaving us at precisely the same rate as it always has, however, is time. An unhuman entity forced us into our homes and away from our loved ones for long stretches; for once, it seemed, there was a problem that throwing federal government-level amounts of money wouldn’t fix. Most of us were forced to adapt; some didn’t, and died; others did, and died anyway. Time kept on slipping, in all its finite utility.
Under the circumstances, and with nowhere to go, it was up to us to spend a lot of time with ourselves. Election-year news cycles are Ringling Brothers productions gone awry in normal times, but taking in the news, even in the simple pursuit of attempting to stay anything like informed, was an especially depressing exercise in 2020.
It was already daylight by the time I got home on Sunday. That meant I spent half my weekend sleeping, which I might’ve done anyway thanks to the bonus hour and also because I’ve grown increasingly slothful as my brain prepares for the cold, barely able to reset the clocks that hadn’t already switched automatically. Which is funny, sort of — temperatures were supposed to be in the 70s all week. For most of my life, that wouldn’t have been unusual. I had no excuse other than the one everyone uses: psychic browbeating.
What is “inessential”? Pieces of trivia are, by nature, tidbits and factoids that at best connect two seemingly disparate ideas to each other but, perhaps at their most quintessential, elicit nothing more than a “Huh, didn’t know that” from someone. There’s a reason trivia is (usually) a popular way for bars to kill time and fill people up with Miller Lite on non-sports nights; take that concept, turn the answers into questions, and voila: you’ve got a long-running syndicated game show.
Answer: this television figure, who died on Sunday at 80, hosted the longest-running iteration of Jeopardy! for 36 years. Who is Alex Trebek? Well, to many, he is so much more than the game show with which the rest of us will forever associate him.
The last thing I did before was visit a library. The Friday ahead of a citywide stay-at-home order, I cut out of the office early and ran over to Harold Washington to pick up Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc, a book you would’ve heard me relentlessly shoehorn into conversations at parties for weeks after had there been any to attend. I did this counting on the idea that 1,600+ pages would get me through a good chunk of quarantine while the libraries were closed, but it turns out there’s a lot of negative space in that thing; I read it in six days. To balance it out, I spent April reading — and I promise this is the only time you’ll see me talk about this unprompted — Infinite Jest. It’s fine. Also, the only other people I know who’ve read or own this book are women. Just saying.
But that Tuesday, the last night out I had before was at a brewery. Beer and books, books and beer. Bikes. This is, fundamentally, all I have been for seven months. Maybe longer, depending on who you ask.
It’s no spoiler to tell you a dark sky reserve is exactly what it sounds like. As more and more of us get born and more and more of us die slower, more and more of us generate heat, emit light, pursue both. It’s bad for nature (which you knew and didn’t care about, really), but it’s also bad for us (which maybe you didn’t, fully; just think of the heartbreaking anecdote about LA residents who couldn’t even recognize their own Milky Way). That’s why the International Dark-Sky Association has worked since 1988 to preserve places on the map where light pollution can be minimized and space can be seen with the minimal effort of tucking away a phone, turning off your car, putting out the fire.
Only 48 officially designated International Dark Sky Parks exist right now. One of them is about four hours from where I live, a straight shot north past Milwaukee, past Green Bay, past acres of rolling Wisconsin farmland and out to the tip of Door Co. at Newport State Park, Wisconsin’s only wilderness-designated state park. There’s nothing up there. That’s the point.
Ever meet someone who’s really into a specific kind of furniture? I don’t mean the workaday influencer wannabe with a midcentury modern fetish or your friend who parrots pages from the latest Dwell, I’m talking lifers who while away hours trading Eames tables on eBay or people who can point out the choicest character lines of a Sauder desk drawer from across a crowded room. You know they’re out there somewhere, of course, but until you meet one, it might be difficult to grasp just how far down this (ultimately very practical) rabbit hole it’s possible to go.
I thought I knew tables and chairs pretty well. I’ve sat in plenty of different office chairs and even voted on one as part of a company initiative (my pick did not prevail). I’ve soaked up nuances simply by living with them. But I was wrong. I do not know tables and chairs. Scott does.
At the bottom is us. We tune in, log on, turn up, shout out. More often than not, we log on and turn up and shout out at each other; it’s what we do now, how we come to make our voices known. Sometimes it’s fun, some (very rare) times it’s educational, but mostly it’s just a pressure release valve we unwind to make sense of our senses, to craft the inevitable human flaw of narrative for ourselves, to try and understand why we feel the way we do. It’s hard work, living. But you, me, we all go on doing it anyway, tuning in because sports are a relief from the rest of our embattered lives and because logging on, turning up, shouting out at what we can’t control is, in its own way, a liberation we’re only inching toward. For now.