Register Sunday | November 17 | 2019
Notes on the End of Cynicism

Notes on the End of Cynicism

Put on your shoes and smile, says Conan O'Brien: the future is full of hard work and rainbows.

Illustration by Linton Murphy

I know where I was at that moment. Do you? Of course you do—you’re just like me. You remember seeing him, this person who’d inspired us, enchanted us, given us hope. You remember when he looked out at us millions and spoke to us, all of us. Made a tear come to all of our eyes. This man who’d pushed and pulled, worked hard. Grew up pretty poor but with brains and went to Harvard, made his bones in Chicago and found himself, finally, gloriously, working in the very building into which he’d projected all his dreams. This man who was just like us, seemed to be of our generation, our time—though he wasn’t, not really, but was just cool enough to pull it off. This man whose words had made us feel happy, and stirred us.

And at that moment, gathered together as we were—either there, with him, having waited hours to see him, or at home watching on our screens—as we all held our breaths, held hands and wept, he said, “Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record it's my least favorite quality, it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen.”

Then Conan O’Brien left the Tonight Show, with his $30 million severance cheque (well, he played “Free Bird” on guitar first. Beck was there. So was that guy from ZZ Top). He’d quit, sure, but he’d gotten here. Here, to 30 Rockefeller Centre. One of the assets he’d lost in the divorce was a character called Masturbating Bear. Have we thought about this? We should: He sat in Johnny Carson’s chair, in Jack Parr’s chair, and he did so via a Masturbating Bear. Aside from that rhyming, it’s compelling. It gives wieners like us hope. Us wieners who write Serious Literature but who also write comedy sketches about women pretending to be men who kill their husbands and make them into soap that they sell to the FBI, and who secretly like writing the latter more and who know that the only way they’d really let themselves only be that person, that Comedy Writer, was if they were legit, like Simpsons or SNL or NBC legit. Conan legit. Which couldn’t happen when cynicism existed, but can now. Because it is dead. He decreed it. And he is us.

Honestly, it’s true: he is me; he is you. (That rhymes, too.) There he is, just like us, pasty and cerebral, dreaming up jokes behind a screen and looking over his shoulder hoping someone important thinks it works. He’s done this since forever, we know, on the Simpsons (yes, he wrote the Monorail episode. And the two-part “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” You’re welcome), on SNL, on the Late Show and on the Tonight Show. He is our small selves, only bigger and with giant orange hair that we have to mention, contractually, when we talk about him.

And he climbed to the mountaintop, and he said, “Don’t be cynical.” And it was good.

We didn’t like cynicism, anyway, because it made life darker and our culture less friendly. And while it gave us wonderful things like The Office, it also didn’t actually, because we knew that The Office wasn’t really about how everyone hated David, it was about how we all have David in us, and our squirming at him shows we work very hard (like, Conan hard) to keep that part of us down. That we work hard to be of this world, not separate from it, says we already had the gun to cynicism’s temple. We were just waiting for a rainbow or a unicorn with giant orange hair to appear so we could pull the trigger.

Cynicism also gave us the music blog Pitchfork (which will have to die, too, because its guts and heart and exoskeleton are made of pure cynicism). It was fun but narrow, its cynicism of the I-know-more-than-you-about-culture variety, which was frustrating for us because we liked real, intelligent discourse about music. Pitchfork’s cynical zenith came when an album by mid-level, ho-hum rockers Jet was reviewed not with words but with a YouTube video of a monkey pissing in its own mouth. Funny at first, but ultimately too easy (monkey see, monkey do). That person got a paycheque for that, which made us, who like real, intelligent discourse, cynical. When we watched this video, we turned to one another and said, “This is why the terrorists hate us.”

BTW, the terrorists don’t hate us anymore. Because they were just super harsh cynics with guns, and now cynicism is dead. We’ll all have jobs, and guns will turn into butterflies and flit away.

The very smart comedian Michael Ian Black—who wrote a beautiful essay, that is not at all cynical, at least not really, about what Billy Joel is thinking on his way to a party where he knows there is a piano—well, he has something to say about Conan. He wonders how Conan became Norma Rae. He calls his blog post “Norma Rae,” even. He also says, “How did a Harvard-educated, multi-millionaire late night talk show host magically transmogrify into a guy who got laid off at the local car plant? As a nation, are we really that concerned about who hosts ‘The Tonight Show,’ a television program that stopped being culturally relevant around 1986?” To him we say, your Billy Joel essay is very funny.

Some other smart people, like Adam Sternberg at New York Magazine’s Vulture culture blog (blogs, huh? We should get one) said, “Before long the late-night fiasco had evolved into a national Passion play about greed, betrayal, incompetence, and corporate cluelessness, with fans rallying around the story of a likable guy who worked hard for years to land his dream job—only to get screwed by the brass. And Leno? He was every Wall Street bonus baby whining that, sure, things went awry, but it was out of my hands, and by the way, how come nobody likes me?” That’s better. And bigger. And less cynical. And therefore more legit!

It was 12:20am on a Saturday and Conan O’Brien, late of the Tonight Show, looked in the camera—right at us!—and killed cynicism with his pure sincerity. I was there, and so were you.

I know someone, and so do you, who interned on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and she said Conan remembered not only her name, but also her family members’ names and what she was studying in school. And whenever he saw her, he stopped her and asked how it was all going.

So of course cynicism is dead. It has to be, because that very nice guy said it; he works hard and is kind and is me and you and us. And he was crying while he said it, and he looked like he meant it. And if he didn’t mean it, then we gave a lot of credit to a guy with at least $30 million more than you and me and us, that he got mostly for doing worse at something than the guy before him, and that doesn’t work. That’s too much like the people we hate, or like a monkey pissing in his own mouth. We need to believe in Conan, and we will, because he is us, and so cynicism dies today. Or tomorrow. Whichever is easier.