My grandfather loved Johnny Carson. Every time I visited, he would let me stay up late and watch the monologue. I never got the jokes. I was 10, why would I? But every night, the news would go off and Johnny would come on, swing that fake golf club, do a double take at Ed McMahon’s laugh, and then put on an hour of entertainment for my grandfather. Every time I think of Johnny Carson, I think of my grandfather.
I never liked Johnny that much. My guy was David Letterman, but only during his stay on “Late Night.” When he moved to CBS, a gangly redheaded comedian/writer took his spot. I was a senior in High School and was getting bored of Letterman by then, so I gave Conan a try. For the first few weeks he was pretty bad. But then he hit his sweet spot and skyrocketed to fame. It led him to the biggest job of his life – The Tonight Show! The same show that Johnny Carson made famous. He had made it!
He lasted 7 months.
NBC eventually begged Jay Leno to return. The internet was frothing mad at NBC, especially the droves of young fans who loved Conan. They took to the internet to display their anger and disappointment. But the anger did something strange: It transformed Conan. It led to a touring variety show across America and eventually Conan’s own show on TBS where he’s a star once again.
But it was something Conan said in his final Tonight Show that deeply affected me. Here’s a short clip:
And with that I want you to think about this.
I’m extremely opinionated. You don’t have to spend much time with me to figure that out. From food to sports to politics, I’ve got my own ideas about how things should be. And I used to express those ideas freely to anyone who would care to listen.
Then one day about a year ago I watched this clip again. I really listened. Conan’s words really cut me to the quick:
“Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere.”
I stopped. I thought about it – my opinions, my debates, my politics. And I realized that I am cynical. And then it hit me – Conan O’Brien hates me!
And I don’t want Conan O’Brien to hate me.
So, I decided to completely stop. I quit posting anything political to social media. I tempered every conversation with enough grace that I could see multiple points of view, not just my own. I started listening to people that I disagreed with just to get their perspective on things. I did all that because I was being cynical and not only Conan, but I was starting to hate who I had become.
Politics is fine. Having an opinion is great. I recommend it for everyone. But when you let your opinion paint the way you see everyone and everything in the world, it becomes cynicism and it doesn’t lead to anything.
For me, a couple of things were working against me. First, I viewed my own personal opinions as the only right response to what was happening in the world. If you agreed with me, congratulations! You’re smart. If you disagreed with me, you’re the worst person in the world. And that’s just a horrible thing to think, isn’t it? But I did! For a long time I thought that way. And it took Conan to wake me up and realize how crappy I was being.
Second, I was so sensitive to my own personal opinion that I was easily offended. I took my ideas about how the world should be and put them on my arm and waited for someone to bump into them. When someone would say something disparaging about my opinions, I would let myself get hurt and then respond in anger, frustration, or victimization. I did this subconsciously, but I did it anyway.
Both of these ways are very negative behaviors. I was hurting myself, hurting others, and hurting my relationships. So I decided to stop. I stopped talking politics. I stopped only listening to people who I agreed with. I stopped thinking that anything I think is right and if you disagree you’re wrong. Some of the things I think are probably wrong. Don’t get all excited, I still think most of the things I think are right. Why else would I think them?
Since that time, I’ve noticed I’m much happier. I’ve also started to see other people’s cynicism…and it’s not pretty. Is that what I looked like? Dear God, I hope I don’t anymore. I’ll probably relapse once or twice. I’ve let a few things slip here and there. I’m not saying everyone should stop talking politics. I am saying that if you do – if you hold deep convictions and opinions about the world around you, please do some self-searching and see if you may be cynical. If you are, stop it! It doesn’t lead anywhere.
By the way, if you want to hear Conan’s entire farewell speech, here it is…