Telling the Boss Off

We don’t really care what happens to Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien. We can’t stop watching because it feels so good to watch them beating the hell out of the corporate suits.

01.16.10 6:39 PM ET

There’s a reason why the feud between the late-night comedians and NBC has seized everyone’s attention, and it’s got nothing to do with the fate of either Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien (who really cares, especially under the shadow of Haiti’s tragedy?). They have told their bosses to go jump in a vat of acid. At a time when people are terrified of losing their jobs, such corporate disobedience has a powerful effect. It is cleansing and cathartic.

In their hilarious abuse of Jeff Zucker & Co., these two comics have put the “stand” back into “stand-up.” They’ve found a way to focus our rage, not just tickle us with snark.

There is something almost sexually satisfying to know that someone else, no matter how wealthy and glamorous, shares with you the daily workaday experience of being screwed.

Don’t get me wrong, the sarcastic and sardonic genius of Stewart and Colbert has been a revolution in comedy. Their cable corrosions are the antidote to network nullity. The driving mechanism of Leno, Letterman, and O’Brien has been the guest star—instead, Stewart and Colbert hosted the public figure. Things have changed somewhat, and by now, more stars make the pilgrimage to Comedy Central’s studios than before, and more public figures appear on the network shows than they did several years ago. But the distinction still exists. You go to the networks’ late-night shows to escape the issues of day; you go to Comedy Central to take the issues on.

Until a few days ago, that is. That’s when Leno and O’Brien’s unprecedented attacks on the honesty and integrity of their bosses made stand-up comedy relevant again. They got to the heart of the matter. They said publicly what every one of us, at some point in our jobs, has wanted to say to those butt-kissing mediocrities who, through some freakish wrinkle in human history, we have to answer to at work. So what if these guys have so much money that both of them together could single-handedly rebuild Haiti? You don't refuse to vote for politicians who represent your values because they're rich, do you? Public spectacle expresses symbolic truth, or not, and the stand-ups' insolence is refreshing and replenishing, and carries the sting of everyday truth.

Jacob Bernstein: Jeff Zucker is the Skunk at the PartyNBC, quipped Leno, stands for “never believe your contract.” Yes, indeed, that goes for all those promise-breaking hustlers who stumbled and bumbled upward above our pay grade and who hold our fate in their hands. NBC, he went on, “only cancels you when you’re in first place.” Of course—achieve a little distinction on the job and some moronic supervisor, threatened by real talent, is going to shoot you down. We’ve been “fired again,” Leno said wryly. “Even when they fire people, it’s a rerun.” After sickness and death, losing your job is probably life’s worst trauma, but it’s a universal experience that happens again and again, and the idiots who do the firing don’t even realize that they are trapped in a cliché.

Conan on future job possibilities: He could “star in a Lifetime movie about a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with her network.” Or: He could “leave television altogether and work in a classier business, with better people, like hard-core porn.” There is something almost sexually satisfying to know that someone else, no matter how wealthy and glamorous, shares with you the daily workaday experience of being screwed.

The mean Bush years replaced the stand-up comic with the sitdown deflations of Stewart and Colbert. This was a sea change in comedy. It was the TV talking heads, sitting behind their absurd, authoritative desks, who were being primarily satirized. From there, the Comedy Central comic went on to puncture the politicians who seemed to be getting a free ride from the media. So you had to get the ironic attitude toward the media before you could grasp the satiric manhandling of the politicians.

You had to adapt yourself to the split-screen, the mash-up, the Internet technological ingeniousness of it all. The technology made you feel like you had your finger on your mouse, made you expect the instant gratification of a “smackdown.” (A Bush-era word if there ever was one.) There was no time for the joke. Stewart and Colbert had to deliver the slap and the smack as speedily and as rawly as possible. The joke made way for the taunt and the insult. The whole thing was deeply satisfying. It still is.

But something was lost when the unarmed, as it were, and solitary stand-up comic gave way to the plugged-in sitdown comic. The stand-up guy was you, out there in the world, all by yourself. He didn’t need a desk, a split-screen, fancy editing. He was you, standing up and facing the world after a day of sitting down in the office and taking the world—you tuned into Johnny Carson and his heirs because, sitting or lying down at home, finally, after a tough day, you were, in fact, not going to sit down and take it any more. The standing comic meant, symbolically speaking, that no matter what happened, you had your defiance, and your wit. You could lose your desk, your screen, your fancy desktop gadgets, and still, no one could keep you from standing up and giving back as good as you got. Why else do you think the middle-finger is the universal symbol of defiance? It’s the hieroglyph of sheer human independence. It’s the individual antidote to the crowded corporate fist.

Never mind their inflated salaries, when Jay and Conan made their impending demotion or termination the comical issue, they returned comedy to what matters, to what people stand around (yes, stand) the proverbial watercooler talking about the next day. They spoke truth to intimate, threatening power—the boss—not to toothless, distant power in the form of the safe, pre-laughable politician. And they did it at a time when people fear that speaking up or talking back will rob them of a paycheck. Let’s hope things will only get worse for the two late-night comedians. Their insolent countertactics will help see us through.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.