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Conan too good for late-night formula

I haven't seen a great deal of O'Brien's work, but it does seem fair to say that he is Irish America's best-known comedic commentator on matters political, social and cultural since the late, great Fred Allen, whose real name was John Florence Sullivan.

They both happen to share New England roots: O'Brien went to Harvard, and Allen spent lots of time in Harvard Square, although not as a student. Allen often had to help his father, a widower who drank too much, stumble through Harvard Square on their way home from Sunday liquid supper.

Allen, a self-educated vaudevillian who went on to become a witty, erudite humorist on radio in the 1930s and '40s, and O'Brien, the razor-sharp Harvard grad, obviously represent very different eras and styles of commentary.

But I suspect Allen would have recognized a bit of himself in O'Brien, particularly these days. Allen was the scourge of network bosses, portraying them as mindless bean counters who cared more about commercials than they did about quality programs. Sound familiar?

And O'Brien, of course, doubled his ratings recently when he decided to make NBC his target of opportunity.

What's more, O'Brien shares with Allen an ability to go low and high in his comedy and his targets, but is at his best when he aims high. And that was the problem. Those bean counters at NBC let it be known that they were unhappy with O'Brien because, they said, he refused to adapt his comedy for middle America.

The suggestion was that O'Brien's act was just a little too smart, a little too edgy, for the folks in the central time zone, where the Tonight Show airs at a relatively civilized 10.30 p.m.

There's probably some merit in that criticism, but the same might have been said about Allen. In fact, Allen's most-memorable running sketch featured actors playing broad ethnic caricatures with names like Ajax Cassidy, a talkative Irishman, Mrs. Nussbaum, a Jewish housewife from the Lower East Side, and Titus Moody, a taciturn Yankee from the upper reaches of New England.

Allen tested the boundaries of radio with these characters, just as surely as O'Brien has tested the boundaries of late-night comedy with his sketches, some of which, I admit, I have found offensive.

Allen and O'Brien are part of a long tradition of Irish and Irish-American satirists, stretching all the way to Jonathan Swift and his famous modest proposal. The two Americans probably don't merit a place in the same sentence as Dean Swift, but there can be little question that in the work of all three there is a barely disguised contempt for authority, a biting intelligence, and an engagement with society and culture.

If O'Brien is disappointing, it is not because mid-America doesn't get his jokes. It's because the late-night formula requires him to waste his wit and intelligence on the vacuous celebrities who have some to populate these shows.

NBC wants to reclaim the glory days when Johnny Carson ruled late night, but I wonder if they remember that when Carson was at his best, he wasn't simply asking rote questions of Hollywood types. He brought on writers, philosophers, social scientists, and other types who would never be allowed on late-night television as it has evolved since Carson's departure two decades ago.

Like his predecessor, Steve Allen, Carson wasn't afraid to bring on thinkers, activists, and men and women of letters in addition to the requisite movie stars.

Hard as it is to believe, Carson once brought on two authors - Paul Erlich and Ben Wattenberg - to debate whether or not the world could sustain global population growth. It's hard to imagine that discussion taking place anywhere today, and certainly not on late night television.

The post-Carson generation seems reluctant to engage people in anything serious once the monologues are done and the day's events dissected.

Allen's radio show was not designed for these kinds of debates, but Allen's opening sketch, like the monologues of today, reflected broad political and cultural conversations in society. And when that format wasn't satisfying enough, Allen wrote brilliant satire and commentary for The New Yorker magazine.

Conan O'Brien's Harvard degree suggests that he might have read a book or two in his day, and surely would be capable of transforming late-night television into something more than a platform for pretty people with movies to promote.

And his recent re-invention as an Irish rebel indicates that he could become an even sharper observer of society, if he is given a proper outlet and a hands-off relationship with bean counters.

In the wake of the Democratic Party's loss of Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in Massachusetts, we have been reminded again of the apparently loss of Irish-American political clout.

But that conclusion ignores the undoubted clout of Irish-American commentators like Conan O'Brien, who could, if given the opportunity, influence more people than any senator or congressman.

To do that, however, O'Brien has to be more like Fred Allen - and less like Jay Leno.

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