Of all the late night hosts, Conan O’Brien has always been the least eager to step into the role of counselor-in-chief. Jimmy Kimmel is obviously in a league of his own lately, but even Jimmy Fallon, a comedian so dedicated to silliness that he didn’t immediately see anything wrong with goofin’ around with Donald Trump, participated in the post-Charlottesville ritual of earnestly addressing the camera about the evils of white supremacy. O’Brien—who had been hosting Late Night with Conan O’Brien for five years when Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show—has never seen that as part of his job. He explained his reasoning after the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando:
Now, I am not a pundit. I am not an expert. And I have always, always made it a policy to stick to my job and keep my opinions to myself. I have really tried over the years not to bore you with what I think.
After Charlottesville, rather than assume the audience would want to hear his own thoughts on the matter, O’Brien invited Al Franken—an expert—to talk about Trump’s response to neo-Nazis in America. So two things seem to be at work here: O’Brien’s belief that his job is to be funny, not to pontificate about the state of the nation, and a certain intellectual modesty when it comes to politics.
But you don’t have to be a senator, an activist, or Jimmy Kimmel to be horrified and sick at the Las Vegas shooting, and so O’Brien took to the stage Monday night to talk it. As with his earlier excursions into politics, he downplayed his own ability to contribute, telling the audience, “plenty of people more qualified than I are reporting the tragic facts and asking how this could happen. So I can’t speak so intelligently about that…” Naturally, he went on to speak intelligently about the issue, which is not that complicated:
The sounds of those automatic weapons last night are grotesquely out of place in a civilized society. It makes no sense to me, as a reasonable human being and a father.
An expert could spin elaborate theories about gun rights in America for hours, but O’Brien’s statement just about covers it. And there’s one realm in which he is uniquely qualified to comment: hosting late night television. Perhaps because he usually declines to participate in the Edward R. Murrow completion that’s taken over much of the late night landscape, O’Brien was struck by how bizarre the entire situation was when his head writer brought him statements he’d made after other recent mass shootings to review while preparing for Monday’s show:
How could there be a file of mass shooting remarks for a late night host? When did that become normal? When did this become a ritual? And what does it say about us that it has?
There aren’t any good answers to most of those questions, beyond the general truth that people suffering under wicked rulers will look for leadership wherever they can find it. Fortunately for O’Brien—and anyone else who feels like leaving this to the experts—you don’t have to be a political obsessive to reach the same conclusion he did: “Something needs to change. It really does.”
Here are Conan O’Brien’s complete remarks:
I wanted to take just a moment up top and acknowledge the reality that is staring us in the face today. We all woke up to some absolutely devastating news this morning. What happened last night in Las Vegas is so terrible and numbing, I don’t even need to relate the news. Obviously, we’ve seen the images, they’re everywhere. And plenty of people more qualified than I are reporting the tragic facts and asking how this could happen.
So I can’t speak so intelligently about that, but there is something I can say. And that’s that I’ve been doing this job for more than 24 years, and when I began in 1993, occasions like this were extremely rare. For me or any TV comedy host back then to come out and need to address a mass shooting spree was practically unheard of. But over the last decade, things have changed.
Now, today, when I came into work, my head writer was standing in my office with a sheaf of papers. And he said, “Here are the remarks you made after the Sandy Hook shootings and the Pulse nightclub attacks in Orlando. You might want to look at them to see what you might want to say tonight.” And that, that struck me. How could there be a file of mass shooting remarks for a late night host? When did that become normal? When did this become a ritual? And what does it say about us that it has?
Now I am not the most political of our comics. I never have been. But I will repeat what I said not long ago after Orlando. I don’t think it should be so easy for one demented person to kill so many people so quickly. The sounds of those automatic weapons last night are grotesquely out of place in a civilized society. It makes no sense to me, as a reasonable human being and a father. And what’s more, we’re all tired of hearing reporters—let alone comics—discuss mass carnage in the most affluent and influential country in the history of the world. Something needs to change. It really does.
As for tonight, I just want to express that my staff and I are truly heartbroken for the families of all the victims in Las Vegas. We encourage you to help in any way possible, that makes sense to you. In the meantime, we have some terrific people here tonight, we really do. We’re gonna get back to our show after this break and try to entertain you and move forward.
I’m sorry I have to come out and set this tone, and I thank you very much for listening. Thank you.