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A Critique of Conan

Last night Michael Jackson appeared on the Conan O’Brien Show. I’d like to say it was a rousing success. Unfortunately, I can’t. Michael was his usual self, soft spoken, a little hard to understand but with a wit still razor sharp. Though it was largely lost on his audience and the host and other guests who continued to lob insults at him throughout the segment. My guess is that someone on Conan’s staff is a fan of better beer and lobbied to have Michael Jackson on the show. Though it came out later in the interview that he had been on before, so who knows. Conan O’Brien seemed very unprepared for the interview, and showed a great deal of ignorance. I don’t think I was expecting too much here. Lucy Liu was the first guest and Conan had obviously seen the new movie she was shilling, was aware of other recent incidents in her life and generally seemed quite at ease and prepared for her. The next guest, Jon Lovitz, went equally smooth, in its way. They appeared like old friends, which they professed to be, and Conan again fielded Lovitz’s barbs with practiced ease and steered the conversation to his new movie, which Lovitz was plugging. Conan also appeared to have seen Lovitz’s new movie, so it didn’t seem too much to ask that he be somewhat familiar with his last guest. But Conan and the two previous guests were, I thought, quite rude at times to Michael and the entire segment could be seen as a metaphor for the general ignorance of the public about beer.

Michael came out wearing, I was happy to see, a new tie and even a new, unrumpled suit. But he had barely settled into his seat before Conan’s first embarassing question oozed out. “Did you ever think of becoming a wine taster instead?” To me, the question inferred that beer is not worthy whereas wine is superior to it. So let’s think about that question. The previous statement had been by way of introducing Jackson to the audience. “You’ve devoted your life to tasting beer.” He began. So basically, Conan said you’ve devoted your life to beer but maybe you should have chosen wine instead. It was like saying his life perhaps had been wasted. Now I may be overreacting here, but I don’t think so. The question, I think, showed a great deal of ignorance and was, on reflection, a mite insulting, especially as a way to begin an interview. Beginnings often set the tone for what’s to come and that was true here, as well.

The next question was equally witless. “How much beer would you say you have in a day, on average?” As if quantity was the hallmark of beer drinking. A moment later, the first decent question was asked. “And what is it you’re looking for in a beer?” To which Michael replied simply. “Taste.” For reasons passing understanding, this made Conan roll his eyes and remark. “I’m sorry I asked.” But Michael continued. “You know there’s so many people out there that drink beers that just taste of nothing whatever and they think ‘this is a great beer.’ Tastes of nothing.” But Conan appeared fixated on something the rest of us couldn’t see. It was clear he wasn’t really listening because he next told him that he believed that Michael’s fly was open. Now if this had been a celebrity who’s fly was open, common sense would dictate that they would have handled it more delicately. They would have panned away from him or zoomed in on a tight shot of Michael or Conan’s face while the embarassing open fly was zipped. It would have gone smoothly. But here they kept the camera on a wide shot the entire time and let us watch him squirm and zip it up, milking it for comedic value. Then Jon Lovitiz couldn’t keep his mouth shut and made a joke of it.

But Michael recovered nicely and asked Conan if he wanted a golden shower, by which he meant the first beer, Dogfish Head’s Golden Shower Imperial Pilsner. While he was pouring the beer into a glass, Conan asked, somewhat awkwardly. “You don’t like people drinking out of a bottle, is that right?” As if it was Michael’s personal crusade. Nobody thinks you should drink wine out of a bottle, but suggest the same thing for beer and people think you’re crazy. Michael’s reply went to the most practical reason for not drinking from a bottle. “It’s a waste of money if you do that. You don’t get the taste if you drink out of the bottle because so much of the taste is in the aroma.” Conan tried Sam’s Imperial Pilsner and declared. “Yeah, that’s beer.” Well, geez, Conan, how discerning. You were able to tell it wasn’t wine or a soda. Was that really the best you could come up with?

Then it turned surreal as Conan asked. “What’s your least favorite beer?” To which Michael immediately replied. “Corona.” Conan sat up in his chair, his eyebrows raised, appearing greatly surprised. “Really!” He exclaimed. At this point the audience actually booed! Now I don’t want to seem like an elitest here, but since I more than likely am, I’ll go out on a limb. Even if you’re unfortunate enough to actually like Corona and drink it willingly, I can’t believe you’d really think it was a fine beer. Think about it this way. You may like Wonder bread, but you know it’s not a fine bread. Or you may like fast food burgers but you know it’s not gourmet food. But apparently the audience was seeded with Grupo Modelo employees last night. If not, then my weeping for our country’s state of beer continues. Conan next turned to his producer, asking. “Does Corona advertise on this show? Oh, they do.” Then, turning back to Michael said. “I disagree with you.” Eliciting a laugh from the crowd. But it shows how his mind was working and just how closely advertising is aligned with a show’s content.

The next topic Conan brought up was malt liquor and whether or not Michael liked it. Apparently he brought this up the last time Michael Jackson was on Conan and he still didn’t like them. But apparently Conan still did and the reason he gave was because they were so cheap. Because when buying beer, price is the number one factor. Maybe Conan really does know his audience, but I found this also insulting. Plus, I’m thinking Conan could probably afford to spend a little more than $1.49 for a bottle malt liquor you could soak your foot in, as he described it. He may be on at 12:30 in the morning, after most sane people are in bed, but I’m thinking he’s still making a bit more than most of us. To bring up malt liquor when there were so few minutes remaining and so much else to talk about, seemed like a complete waste of time.

Next, Michael poured an English beer, Meantime Brewing’s Old Smoked Ale and attempted to explain smoked malt. Then Conan asked to try the Black Chocolate beer from Belgium but they never did identify it. Again, Michael tried to talk about the roasted malt. Conan was disappointed because there was no actual chocolate in it. Michael then recommended he try Brooklyn Brewery’s Chocolate Stout. At that point they mercifully ran out of time. There were three more beers sitting on the table, untried, including Tomme Arthur’s from Port Brewing, which was unfortunate.

I know television isn’t really the best medium to extoll beers’ many virtues, especially in so short a time frame and in front of a seemingly hostile host and audience. But I confess I really was hoping for more. I expected the host to be at least minimally prepared, to have some interest in the guest’s expertise. Conan’s audience, I imagine, is largely a younger one and this might have been a golden opportunity to educate them about better beer. Instead, the Conan O’Brien Show squandered that chance by behaving insultingly toward Michael and better beer in order to get cheap laughs. I know it’s all about ratings and entertainment, but there’s no reason the show couldn’t have been both more educational and entertaining. Michael Jackson, of course, has a wealth of knowledge at his fingertips and could have talked intelligently about any beer questions posed to him but Conan instead wasted his time talking about Corona and malt liquor.

Before this, I was largely ambivilent about the Conan O’Brian Show. I almost never watch talk shows unless there’s someone on I really would like to see, and that, quite frankly, is rare. It’s usually just a parade of overprivileged celebrities hawking their latest project in the hopes of parting you from your money so they can continue their extravagant lifestyle. But after this, I’ll certainly think twice before tuning in again.

UPDATE: Michael Jackson posted his own reflections on doing the Conan show on his Beer Hunter website.

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