Correction to This Article
Due to an editing error, the version of this story that ran in the print edition said the event at Tattoo Bar was held Thursday. It actually takes place on Friday, Jan. 22. This version has been corrected to reflect the accurate information.

Even as Conan O'Brien takes a buyout, his most vocal fans continue to mobilize

After taking an exit deal worth an estimated $45M from NBC, former 'Tonight Show' host Conan O'Brien is set to debut a new late-night talk show on TBS on November 8.
By Jen Chaney
Friday, January 22, 2010

By all accounts, the Late Night Debacle of 2010 appears to be over. Conan O'Brien took the big buyout; Jay Leno will reclaim his title as "Tonight Show" host on March 1. And on Friday, O'Brien will officially say farewell and, presumably, string-dance off into the sunset, at least until another network gives him a job. End of story.

Well, not exactly. The legions of diehard O'Brien fans who have spent the past couple of weeks unleashing their outrage on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and, on Monday, the streets of four of America's largest cities aren't ready to let go of their bitterness -- or their beloved Coco -- just yet.

"If they think they're going to get away with this, they're not," says Josh Feldman, an American University freshman speaking of NBC in a tone reminiscent of a mad-as-hell Howard Beale from the movie "Network."

Even though O'Brien's departure has looked like a done deal for days, supporters such as Feldman have continued to mobilize, online and off. On Wednesday night, hours before O'Brien finalized that $45 million buyout agreement, the number of members of the Facebook page "I'm With COCO" -- dubbed in honor of O'Brien's nickname and categorized cheekily as a religious organization -- swelled past the half-million mark. And online chatter suggests that Team Conan is organizing more rallies -- farewell parties, really -- to take place Thursday outside TV stations and on college campuses in Los Angeles, Austin, Minneapolis and other cities. Not to be left out of a social movement, the District will host its own "I'm With Coco" event Friday night at Tattoo Bar; attendees who wear an "I'm With Coco" T-shirt, a Conanesque wig or all orange -- a color that pays homage to O'Brien's flaming beacon of a hairdo -- receive free admission.

Social-networking crazes tend to come and go with the swiftness of a Twitter trending topic, but the pro-Coco campaign seems to have touched a genuine nerve, one that goes beyond mere loyalty to a man and his Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. So what, exactly, has gotten an entire O'Brien brigade fired up and ready to go?

Some say NBC's treatment of O'Brien -- coupled with the host's heartfelt "People of Earth" letter -- has tapped into latent rage toward corporate America.

"The reason this is as big as it is is that everybody can relate to this," says Feldman, a member of the Facebook groups "I'm With COCO," "Team Conan" and "Boycott The Tonight Show with Jay Leno!" "Everybody has been in a job and been put in a position and then been kicked to the curb because [the bosses] decide 'I like this guy better.' "

"Just like the banks, they're kind of pushing around the little guy," says Penny Bitner, a homemaker who lives in a suburb of Detroit. "I mean, I wouldn't say that Leno and Conan are little guys. But these corporations just don't care what we think. They don't care."

Others view the O'Brien-Leno conflict as more evidence of the marginalization of Generation X, all those children of the '60s and '70s sandwiched between the demographic behemoths that are the baby boomers and Generation Y. (O'Brien is 46, but his audience skews younger; Leno is 59.)

Jennifer James, an O'Brien supporter in Oklahoma City who writes a blog called "are you there God? it's me, generation X," says the situation -- which happens to involve an Xer (O'Brien) losing his gig to a boomer (Leno) who won't let go of it -- reminds her of stories she's heard from people in their 30s and early 40s who can't advance in their careers because their baby-boomer bosses refuse to retire.

"It's an irresistible metaphor for Gen X and the baby boomers, and the conflicts that do exist in the workplace," she says.

Bitner, on the other hand, thinks the late-night situation further proves that NBC and other networks underestimate the value of viewers from her age group. (Bitner is 30.)

"Gen X has been the redheaded stepchild of all the generations, but I think we've just been ignored," she says. "We were ignored in the '90s when people weren't taking us seriously. And we're being ignored now." (Redheaded, huh? Who does that remind you of?)

And, it must be said, some don't see deep meaning in any of this.

"I think people just think it's unfair and that maybe Conan is the underdog," says Alicia Lewis, one of the organizers of the Tattoo Bar event. "And, you know, everybody wants to see that person win."

Whatever the reason, clearly the Xers -- not to mention quite a few millennials -- are enraged and engaged by the loss of Conan O'Brien from NBC's airwaves. But with their fearless leader taking his final bow this week, what are they going to do now?

Many people online, Feldman and Bitner among them, are vowing to boycott NBC, "30 Rock" and all. Bitner also is urging her brothers and sisters in Facebook arms to write letters to any company that advertises on "The Tonight Show," saying they won't support the products as long as commercials air during Leno's time slot.

Of course, it might sound absurd to devote so much energy to a frivolous cause that doesn't carry the significance of, say, the crisis in Haiti or health care. The Coco crazies have heard that criticism and often defend themselves by saying that supporting O'Brien hasn't prevented them from donating money to the earthquake victims or doing other things for the greater good.

"It feels good being passionate about something," Bitner says, laughing, "even if it is idiotic."

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