The James Clayton Column: Conan the Comedian

Conan O'Brien? Jay Leno? David Letterman? James tries to make sense of the last week, and ends up talking about a whole different Conan instead...

Friday Night with Conan the Barbarian

War has been rumbling across the ocean, but I have no idea what it’s about. A common language separates us all and that is the cultural products we consume. Not being someone who watches American late-night chat shows, I’m at a total loss as to the whole brouhaha boiling around Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show.

I feel like I’m missing out and totally ignorant of something huge and probably important. I feel the same way about Twilight: lots of teenage girls are moping about with ‘Team Edward’ emblazoned on t-shirts and excitedly talking about romances with good-looking vampires and werewolves, but it means zip-all to me. Until I actually read one of the books or build up the enthusiasm to watch a Twilight flick, the whole thing is as alien as the inner workings of Admiral Ackbar’s digestive system.

Similarly so, I know little more than that Conan O’Brien has an orange quiff and is a little upset having been crapped on. Jay Leno has a big jaw, bad ratings and is the pantomime villain of the piece. Beyond that, all I’m aware of are the facts that it involves big money, studio hand-wringing and the angry audiences of America screaming “go Coco!” as if they’re addicted to Cocoa Krispies, struck down with the midnight munchies and craving a fix of chocolatey milk.

Some web research was therefore in order to get up to date with scandal that’s gripped the United States. Having got the impression that this was an affair of tremendous televisual importance I’d been anticipating suitably dramatic scenes. When American TV gets excited, damn, it goes apeshit. The Fonz jumps sharks, Tom Cruise jumps sofas and rabid conservative commentators like Glenn Beck get so hysterical they push their blood pressure beyond boiling point and threaten to haemorrhage before they’ve finished reading the headlines.

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I’d been expecting the sort of extreme stuff you see in Network and Videodrome. I was hoping to find Conan O’Brien screaming “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” I wanted to see Jay Leno proclaiming “long live the new flesh!” as a great bloody gaping hole opened up in his midriff to spew gore out of the box all over the half-conscious couch potatoes of America. Instead, all I discover is O’Brien imploring his followers not to get eaten up in cynicism before wishing them a heartfelt thank you. No bloodshed, sofa burning or venom-spitting at all. How underwhelming.

The whole issue also doesn’t make sense because the injured party’s name is Conan. How can someone with the name ‘Conan’ come out the loser? And how inappropriate is that name for the world of schmooze and glitz that is talk show TV? Surely, Conan isn’t a man in a tie behind a desk jabbering away with semi-celebrities. Conan is a heavily-accented hulk from the Hyborian Age, a barbaric blade-wielding warrior.

Forget Not-Quite-Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, David Letterman or whoever else America’s insomniacs tune in to. What television really needs is the Cimmerian slayer to hit the late night schedules and shake things up. In all this disorder, The Tonight Show With Conan The Barbarian could be the fresh concoction that the networks are crying out for.

Giving the character a TV programme certainly makes more sense than pushing out another movie in an attempt to kick fresh life into a franchise that’s best left to be remembered as classic cult fantasy from the ‘80s. I fear the worst: that the upcoming Conan feature will go the way of Terminator: Salvation and Superman Returns and ignominiously end up as a franchise reboot that’s regretted, resented and ultimately rejected.

Jason Momoa, formerly of Stargate Atlantis, has got some big boots to fill in succeeding Arnie as the big-screen incarnation of the Barbarian, indeed.  Even if the film does manage to stand up on its own and meet expectations, it’s doubtful that audiences will abandon the teen vampire dramas and Harry Potter flicks to embrace a series about a sullen muscleman who has little to confuse his life beyond what he’s going to fight next. Unless Conan’s next story involves girlfriend trouble and a period of bedroom exile backed by an emo-rock soundtrack, it probably won’t catch on. To save all the hassle and avoid staining the legacy, leaving aside the idea of motion pictures and moving the big hero onto the small screen makes much more sense.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories would be perfect material for a long-running series and, if they’re offensively awful (and how could they be?), then it’s easier to bury toxic waste in the wilderness of cable TV than it is in the bright glare of Hollywood. That’s assuming, of course, that the title character sticks stubbornly to his sword-wielding warrior persona. Seeing several gaps in the market, I’d suggest that Conan tried his hand at some different formats, diversified and showed that he’s not just a one-dimensional ‘Barbarian’.

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Imagine waking up to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime (pre-politics and roles as a pregnant man) dressed up in battle gear backed by London Bridge and a spandex-clad troupe of followers as soon as you flip on the television. Exercising along to Cardio With Conan(a.k.a. The Barbarian Breakfast Burn) the country wakes up happier and healthier each day at dawn.

Unquestionably, Conan the Barbarian would make a great TV personality and I can see endless possibilities for him as a versatile presenter. There could be cooking shows, current affairs news reporting gigs and survival skills specials with Bear Grylls.

Ideally, though, the fantasy legend would be given his own flagship programme and consequently late-night TV would get a ‘real’ Conan. Seeing as the chat show scene is a bit unstable across the Atlantic right now, Britain is the perfect place to start establishing a reputation and with Jonathan Ross retiring from BBC roles, an incredible opportunity has opened up for our Hyborian hero.

They’re quite alike (tall, distinctive speech impediment, outlandish fashion sense), so the transition from Ross to Conan would be relatively smooth. Friday Night With Conan The Barbarian would undoubtedly be an entertaining mix of celebrity interviews and gladiatorial combat with Thulsa Doom and his band of snake-cult crazies replacing Four Poofs and a Piano to provide musical accompaniment. Plus, you can guarantee that the grunting host’s opening monologue would never drag on. It’d be excellent and certainly makes more sense than restarting the movie series afresh.

James’ previous column can be found here.