In Conan O’brien’s final send off on his short-lived time as host of the Tonight Show, he had an important message for his viewers—Don’t Be Cynical. Now if there is anyone who has just cause to be cynical one would think it would be Conan. His transition to the Tonight Show was talked about for five years and when it happened, the less-than-erudite middle America audience that followed Jay’s low-brow chuckling every night just didn’t get him.
Conan is funny and always has been. However, as is the case in comedy, who the audience is determines if the comic is comedic or not. People didn’t like the gags, NBC executives, in all their wisdom, canned Conan.
So should we be cynical about showbiz? Should he want to “get back” at the network for embarrassing him in front of, well, everyone? He doesn’t seem to think so. He understands the danger cynicism poses to society and how much this cancer has already eaten away at what is and can be great about us.
Unfortunately, cynicism has become the order of the day. It’s become the personality of the post-war generation who has been given it all, and is satisfied with nothing. We live in the “land of opportunity” yet are unwilling for the most part to do the hard work it takes to make the most of these opportunities. If the US or Canadian embassy in any developing country (and probably in developed countries) were to offer a draw or contest (probably some kind of reality show contest) for three free passports to North America, the line ups would stretch for miles. We live in a place where people want to come, and they do come in droves, because the opportunities afforded them here. So why are we cynical? Why are we so dissatisfied?Nick Hornby, British author and Arsenal football enthusiast, encapsulates this cynicism better than anyone in his book How to Be Good, through his main character Jane Carr, a doctor and middle-class cynic, trying to come to terms with her husband David’s recent transformation from ranting, angry columnist, to ultra-compassionate humanitarian. At a dinner with old friends and “new” husband, she comments on the state of affairs:
I got sick of hearing why everyone was useless, and ghastly, and talentless, and awful, and how they didn’t deserve anything good that had happened to them, and they completely deserved anything bad that had happened to them, but this evening I long for the old David—I miss him like one might miss a scar, or a wooden leg, something disfiguring but characteristic. You knew where you were with the old David. And I never felt any embarrassment, ever. Weary despair, sure, the occasional nasty taste in the mouth, certainly, flashes of irritation almost constantly, but never any embarrassment. I had become comfortable with his cynicism, and in any case, we’re all cynical now, although it’s only this evening that I recognize this properly. Cynicism is our shared common language, the Esperanto that actually caught on, and though I’m not fluent in it—I like too many things, and I am not envious of enough people—I know enough to get by. And in any case it is not possible to avoid cynicism and the sneer completely. Any conversation about, say, the London mayoral contest, or Demi Moore, or Posh and Becks and Brooklyn, and you are obliged to be sour, simply to prove that you are a fully functioning and reflective metropolitan person.
So again, why would Conan tell his audience not to be cynical when there seems to be so much to be cynical about? The question one has to ask is, how does it serve you to be cynical?
The answer is that it doesn’t serve you at all. To complain about something, most of which you have no personal control over, is an attempt to bring something else down to your own level. In Hornby’s book, Jane begins by being angry with her husband because he is always angry and doesn’t treat her well, then resents her husband for being too nice and apparently phony in his desire to “save the world.” She can never be happy because she is comfortable finding fault with others while taking the high moral ground by saying she is good because she’s a doctor. Yet she isn’t even that good to her patients who bother her too much and she has little patience for her children who annoyingly have similar traits to their parents.Cynicism is dragging us down and those people who take advantage of the opportunities given them and succeed are targeted by the cynics because we want everyone to be dragged down to the same level. Like Kurt Vonnegut wrote in “Harrison Bergeron,” “The year was 2081 and everyone was equal.” We may be a long way off from 2081 but we’re well on our way to strapping burdens of birdshot on people’s backs just so they can be as pathetic as the rest of us. So shrug off the cynicism and see something good to pursue. Remember, like that inspiring heart-warming movie told us, life and liberty can be expected, but happiness has to be pursued. We are not entitled to it.