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.
No, oddly enough, the remasculated man of which we speak more closely resembles Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes. On the surface, Robert Downey Jr.'s steampunk version of the English detective comes across as a bit of a fop—he's a connoisseur of waltzes and brocade waistcoats, and he's got an unusual streak of possessiveness when it comes to Watson. But this Holmes also happens to be a pillar of confidence, a strategic genius, and a gifted, chiseled practitioner in the art of kicking ass. Just watch him in slo-mo as he prepares to dispatch an opponent by thinking through every step of the bone breakage and jaw dislocation that he's about to inflict. He's a man of words and action. A refined badass. He's a gentleman, absolutely, but that doesn't mean he always has to be gentle.
Which is a crucial distinction. For a while now, American men seem to have endured the shocks and shifts of the past 10 years by collectively cowering—by retreating into a safe, soft, risk-averse, and often narcissistic fortress of solitude. In 2005, this magazine stated it plainly: "The average 21st-century guy is a quilted man, tucked under a fluffy coverlet and surrounded by throw pillows. His world is one of comfort and frippery. His idea of agony is getting his chest waxed—which, to be fair, is said to be agonizing—and his idea of frustration is trying to unclog the john while his wife makes fun of him." That approach is not going to cut it anymore. You can feel it. The decade that lies ahead already has a Glengarry Glen Ross undercurrent of make-or-break to it: Supersize me or Marginalize me—those are your options, without a lot of wiggle room in between.
Such a shift is evident in the bumper crop of Oscar-worthy dude-in-a-spiritual-crisis films like Crazy Heart and Up in the Air—movies in which the cinematic drama hinges on whether a guy will finally get his shit together, find a new focus, and move forward. The recent spring fashion shows in Milan were rife with military imagery. "The mood of the collection is a saying we have in Italian," Gianfranco Ferré designer Roberto Rimondi declared in the New York Times. "Use the final bullet in your gun." The man of the moment is a sniper. He knows that getting ahead in a fractured, fluid world is no longer a matter of fishing with dynamite; it's about taking aim and going after what you want. You can see it with actor James Franco, who drop-kicked a stagnant bucket of Hollywood's conventional wisdom by enrolling in writing classes at Columbia University, taking on gay-friendly roles in films like Milk and Howl, gamely air-dropping into General Hospital, and proclaiming his love of poetry while squiring his gorgeous girlfriend Ahna O'Reilly to red-carpet parties—and becoming a bona fide star in the process. You can see it with Democratic politician Harold Ford Jr., who, having been thwarted in his plan to become the first African-American leader of the free world, uprooted himself from his home state of Tennessee and launched a campaign to capture a New York seat in the U.S. Senate—against the wishes of his own party and his president. You can see it with Conan O'Brien, who has spent the better part of his adult life banking on being an NBC talk-show host—and will now take a skydive into the ether of reinvention. While it would be an exaggeration to say that a Promise Keepers-style movement is afoot, there are charged particles of change in the air. The runaway success of next-gen self-help gurus like Gary Vaynerchuk and Timothy Ferriss is a clear sign that America's dutiful salarymen are looking for ways to navigate a new, uncharted territory, one in which the old rules about careful investing, "skill sets," and professional advancement no longer apply.
Because what lies ahead, for the men who are savvy enough to see it and grab it, is opportunity. With the world in flux, culturally and economically, those who are ballsy enough to shake off the old formulas will stand the best chance of prospering. Guys have dutifully internalized the mantras of caution for over a decade: Sock away savings in your 401(k), buy and renovate a house, the tortoise beats the hare. Et cetera. Yawn. As sensible as that approach once seemed, the turmoil in the real-estate and stock markets has demonstrated that there's no such thing as safe. And if that's the case, hell, you can continue to patiently underwrite your life or you can decide to live it. One of the old stereotypes that always come up when people talk about masculinity is, of course, the image of the caveman. And yeah, it's probably true that the average loincloth-clad Cro-Magnon gent spent a lot of time grunting, fighting, and downing mastodons out on the savannah. But is that who you want to be? Think about it. That was your average caveman. It was the exceptional caveman who helped the tribe advance. He was the guy, after all, who went out and discovered fire.