Wednesday, February 16, 2011

(empo-tymshft) (empo-tuulwey) How the Twentieth Century Contributed to Conan 2.0

Recently, Fortune published an article entitled "Conan 2.0." (H/T Techdirt and JCunwired.) While the article primarily deals with how changes in the technological landscape have affected Conan O'Brien and his work, there are a couple of item in the article that remind us, in the words of the 20th century philosophers Devo, that "some things never change."

The first item comes from Conan's post-NBC, pre-TBS stand-up tour, during which Twitter hashtags were used to influence O'Brien's onstage performance.

Suddenly O'Brien wasn't just performing for fans; he was also engaging in a conversation with them.

Just before each show [Aaron] Bleyaert would tweet a new hashtag (which allowed Twitter users to form a single conversation stream that everyone in the audience could follow), and then members of O'Brien's team would monitor the tweets from audience members to one another....By reading the hashtag stream, Bleyaert recalls, O'Brien and his team could see, for example, that "some guy in the fifth row was using Twitter to try and pick up a 'girl in the white hat, three rows in front of the stage,' " and O'Brien would instantly incorporate that into his next bit.

But when I was reading the passage from the Fortune article, I was immediately struck by the next sentence:

He was tapping into his improvisational roots -- he had been a member of the Groundlings, the legendary Los Angeles improv group whose alumni include Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman, Laraine Newman, and Jimmy Fallon -- but now he was "improv-ing" based on digital information gathered in real time.

Now let's face it - if I or Robert Scoble or someone had access to a real-time Twitter feed of reactions to what we were saying, we could certainly incorporate that into our presentation. But Laraine Newman, unlike me, could actually incorporate that information and come up with something funny. This isn't because of some type of Twitter training or Web 2.0 training, but because of the improv training that Newman, O'Brien, and others received back in the dim days of the twentieth century. In this case, the tool (the Twitter feed) is secondary to what you do with the information that the tool provides you.

The second part of the Fortune article that struck me was when O'Brien was talking about how his childhood dream was shattered:

O'Brien had worked his whole professional life with one goal in mind, to get to host The Tonight Show, and he got there, but he was born 10 years too late for it to really matter. Accidentally, however, he's learned how to innovate and make the Conan brand mean even more than The Tonight Show brand to a young, passionate, and growing audience....

"You have an image in your head of this iconic person. For me, it might have been Johnny Carson, where you grow up with him, and you think, 'Well, that's who I need to be' -- to realize that feeling I had when I was 8, sitting in my parents' house and watching him. And then things happen, and you think, 'Oh, my God, I didn't -- that fell apart.' But it's the failure to be that person or to completely follow through on what he did that leads you to something that's much better."

On the surface, it seems to be an indictment of old TV, and how Twitter and YouTube and everything else have worked together to make old TV obsolete. Yes, that's how it sounds - until you realize that Conan O'Brien wasn't the first person to have his dream shattered.

Nearly twenty years ago, another insanely popular comedian with a late night show wanted to host the Tonight Show. Unlike Conan, however, this person never got a chance to do so, because NBC had already signed a deal to give the show to Jay Leno after Johnny Carson retired. This performer, David Letterman, was literally in physical pain because his dream of hosting the Tonight Show had been shattered.

Now if the situation in the early 1990s had paralleled the situation of today, Letterman would have reinvented himself by opening a CompuServe account and distributing bits on VHS tape, thus revolutionizing the way in which performers could access their audience.

But Letterman did no such thing. Instead, he transferred his show from one network, NBC, to another network, CBS, and pretty much did the same thing that he had been doing before, only in a nicer suit.

Heck, there are a number of performers who have lost out on the Tonight Show and have enjoyed success afterwards. Despite the fact that Joan Rivers' late night show is popularly regarded as a failure, the fact remains that Rivers has continued to work and enjoy popularity even today.

So Conan's post-Tonight show success is not unique. And Conan's ability to immediate react to hashtags is not a new phenomenon. What Conan HAS demonstrated is an ability to adapt to his situation, based upon his personal experience and upon the tools that are available to him. I don't know if Conan could have bested Milton Berle - back in the 50s, people would have had to rely on word of mouth to realize that O'Brien and Lucille Ball shared a hair color - but O'Brien would have given it his best shot.
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