Formative: Conan O’Brien

I remember where I was when I first heard the name Conan O’Brien. It was one of the days that I was working in the kitchen at Baptist Bible College, of all places. David Letterman had jumped shipped to CBS, and NBC needed a replacement. An unknown comic writer got the job. I’m not quite sure why we were talking about it, but the kitchen staff at my Bible college met the news with a resounding Who?  

Im-With-CocoI also remember the first time I watched an entire episode of Conan’s show. Vanessa and I were living on Staten Island, making a new life for ourselves. One night, we couldn’t sleep. And so we watched Conan’s Late Night show. He did a bit where he went to some town in Texas where his show aired at like 3 in the morning. He searched the town for people watching his show. It was hilarious. I was hooked.

My favorite Conan Late Night show was the one dedicated to U2. The band were the only guests. They participated in the bits, including a “In the Year 2000” sketch (always my favorite Conan bit). For a fan of both Conan and U2, this whole episode was different, memorable, and awesome.

I was thrilled when Conan got the promotion to The Tonight Show. We used to watch Jay Leno, just because it was on, but I have never been a fan. I know that a lot of people don’t think Conan did a good job on The Tonight Show, but I enjoyed, even if it was less quirky. Nonetheless, 7 months wasn’t enough time to get his footing. When NBC caved to the insecure insanity of Jay Leno and fired Conan, I was annoyed and offended. I vowed to never watch Leno again – and I haven’t.

There are two things that I will never forget about the end of Conan’s run on The Tonight Show. First, the last couple of weeks of shows were absolutely fantastic, must-see-TV. He cut loose and was himself in a way he hadn’t been up to that point. The shows were funny and poignant and great. It makes me think that if he had been that way from the start, maybe he never would have lost the job.

The other thing I will never forget about that time is the grace with which Conan handled all of it. It was obvious that he was devastated. It was obvious that he was getting screwed. And yet, he carried himself with honesty, humor, and humility. It made me love him.

Now, let me be clear. I don’t want to be overdramatic about what happened on NBC. In the scale of great global injustices, a millionaire getting screwed over by another millionaire and a billion dollar corporation doesn’t rank anywhere close to human trafficking or poverty or just about anything. Don’t think that I am crying tears over Conan.

But …

What happened to him was a very personal and public humiliation for Conan. And – for whatever reason they occur and to whomever they occur – personal and public humiliations are gut-wrenching to watch and, even more so, to experience. I’m not sure how most of us would react to being so personally repudiated and so publicly humiliated as Conan was. But I’m pretty sure that a lot of us wouldn’t be as gracious as he was.

And that is what about Conan has been formative for me. I have dedicated my life to trying to exhibit profound, overcoming grace in every circumstance and with every person. Sometimes I succeed but often I fail. And to see someone I admired exhibit such grace with authenticity and humor … it gave me hope that it’s possible.formative conan o'brien

On his last episode on The Tonight Show, Conan said these words. They are hanging in my office and are on the desktop of my computer:

But if you work really hard and are kind, amazing things will happen.

In the face of personal and public humiliation, when venom and revenge could have been justified, with the whole world watching, Conan didn’t resort to what most of us would do or say. He exhibited optimism and hope. And it’s that kind of grace that makes me a forever member of Team CoCo. And it’s also why Conan O’Brien has been formative in my life.


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