Admit it. You didn't know the guy had it in him.
For so many years Conan O'Brien was such a good boy—so deferential, so self-effacing, so darn nice. On the air, with his wooden body language and his orange Irish choirboy's cowlick, he always had a way of seeming as safe and gelded as a marionette—Howdy Doody Goes to Harvard. The funnyman was patient, too. Back in 2004 the suits from NBC tiptoed into his office and reassured him, "Yes, yes, we'll give you The Tonight Show, Coco, we promise, just as long as you're willing to keep cracking jokes for college kids in the after-midnight tiddlywinks league for the rest of the decade."
And Conan said, "Okay!"
Which is why it came as such a surprise this year—the sort of surprise that gives you a vicarious urge to blurt out "Hell yeah!" in the street—when Conan O'Brien, after being jerked around in a January ratings panic by NBC executives who suddenly wanted to shunt him back to TV sleepy time, looked his corporate overlords straight in the eye and explained how he felt about that.
How he felt, more or less, was: Fuck. You.
In that instant, Conan the Barbarian got his balls back, and probably not a moment too soon. If you weren't watching him before the blowup, you were compelled to follow him afterward. That's because the late-night donnybrook didn't fizzle out with the usual televised hissy fit. Instead, O'Brien channeled the frustrations and aspirations of every stuck-in-a-rut striver in America by triumphing—and by doing so with a deft example of professional jujitsu. Using wit, charm, humility, and a neatly focused media strategy, he managed—finally—to become America's hero.
For a broad swath of recession-battered men who are wobbling on the cusp of a new decade, trying to figure out how to navigate the perpetual paradigm shifts of business and politics and media and fashion and human interaction itself, the Shakespearean exeunt of Conan O'Brien and his Tonight Show team could be viewed as a signal flare. After years of dutiful, dues-paying obsequiousness, men seem to be coming to the realization that surviving (and ven enjoying) the wide-open Wild West gestalt of 2010 demands a different response than testicular retraction. In other words, we're witnessing the remasculation of the American man.
Of course, to use a word like remasculation is to run the risk of being misinterpreted. For too long, American masculinity has been reflexively associated with a panoply of frat-boy clichés. A "real man" was a middle-management guy who watched the game in old sweatpants, scratched his 'nads, and ogled the pom-pom squad while drinking cheap beer, stuffing his face with chili dogs, burping volcanically, and complaining about the ol' ball and chain. A real man was a pig, more or less. Or maybe a snake—a slithering hedge-fund pasha who was more than happy to eviscerate the national economy as long as it bolstered his stockpile of jet fuel and foie gras. Of course, neither stereotype reflects the complexity and variety of the male experience.