December 17, 2006
A Weird Comic Dialogue: Conan O'Brien, Horny Manatees, and User-Generated Content

Last week, people across our department here at MIT were talking about the situation with the Horny Manatee and Conan O'Brien.

For those who haven't heard the story, here's the synopsis. Conan had a segment on his show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, in which he was talking about a variety of ludicrous sports mascots for universities that he would like to see, he suggested that F.S.U. create a mascot called the "Webcam Manatee," who it was insinuated would perform various masturbatory acts and tease sexual explicitness while, well, in a manatee costume. The video displayed someone watching the manatee rubbing himself to the tune of the classic (and I use that term loosely here) song, "I Touch Myself."

In itself, not a major story. Sounds like standard late night fare. Raunchy, but still within a safety net, while poking fun at the very real popularity of sexually charged webcams. However, at the end of the skit, and it is still said to e unplanned, O'Brien said that the person watching the Webcam was logged onto, a site that didn't exist when this show was taped. Lawyers were quickly afraid that someone would create the site and then create extremely inappropriate content that NBC could then be construed for having promoted, so they bought the license to the site in between the time the show finished taping and its airing time later that night.

This happened on Dec. 4. Jacques Steinberg with The New York Times had a great story about the whole phenomenon last Tuesday, point out that, by Monday afternoon, the site now featured official content from the staff of the show and had received about 3 million hits. "Meanwhile several thousand of Mr. O'Brien's viewers have also responded to his subsequent on-air pleas that they submit artwork and other material inspired by aquatic mammals, and the romantic and sexual shenanigans they imagine."

NBC and Late Night have made sure that they control the content that comes through and have now tapped deep in a reserve of user-generated content by plenty of creative fans who were just waiting for an outlet for something like this. The story includes quotes from several of the poems featured on the site or the show based on this drive for Horny Manatee content.

O'Brien himself as also interviewed, saying that "he was stunned and overwhelmed by the viewers' response to what had initially been a throwaway line, and by what that response, collectively, suggested about how the digital world was affecting traditional media like television." He calls it "this weird comedy dialogue with the audience."

There are calls on the front page of the site for photo submissions, and the fan art is prominently displayed.

I hate to say it, but perhaps those gyrating manatees do display the power of convergence culture like little else. It gives viewers the chance to utilize their own creative abilities and technical skills to talk back to Conan, who is right in encouraging this "weird comic dialogue." And it may be the future of comedy in particular, a medium in which dialogue with the audience is more easily possible when talking about stand-up or variety show comedy.

Of course, America's Funniest Home Videos and similar concepts have realized the power of user-generated content for comedy for a long time, but Conan's success suggests that this may be where a dialogue between fans and producers could flourish, and where producers could realize they have little to lose in dialogue with the audience. In this case, the producers were sure to make sure they controlled the conversation by having the Web site be "official," but it's interesting to contrast that with the relationship Stephen Colbert and The Colbert Report have with fan site Colbert Nation. Comedy Central, one of our partners here in the Convergence Culture Consortium through MTV Networks, has encouraged fan involvement with the show through projects like The Green Screen Challenge, in which Colbert provided video of himself that fans could build into various content that was then submit.

Also, look at this project from another of our partners here in C3, Turner Broadcasting--the new online channel Super Deluxe, which will feature comedy content from both established comedians and users.

Thanks to William Uricchio and Scott Osterweil for alerting me to the topic.