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Late-Night Watch: Conan O'Brien begins the countdown

And so it came to pass, in the seventh month of his tenure as host of "The Tonight Show," that Conan O' Brien began what, lacking only an official announcement, looks to be his last week in the job. Though it feels like this oddly public adventure in re-programming has been going on as long as the healthcare debate, it was only last week that O'Brien, responding to what NBC executives must have regarded as: (a) a brilliant compromise; or (b) a fiendishly clever way to make him leave, announced his disinclination to move his show to 12:05 a.m. in order to allow Jay Leno half an hour of late-night before him.

Technically, neither O'Brien nor Leno had been fired -- NBC was just changing their time slots, something that happens all the time in television (albeit often with disastrous results). But starting time is everything in the hierarchy of late night, and having waited roughly six years for the promised promotion, O'Brien is understandably unhappy over the prospect of being sent from the major leagues even halfway back to the minors -- and unhappy as well on behalf of the brand. "I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting," he wrote in last week's statement to "People of Earth."

Leno took time Monday night on his officially failed 10 p.m. experiment in prime-time late-night to "give you my view of what has been going on here at NBC." It was lengthy account in which he painted himself -- perhaps correctly, though a little incredibly -- as a man only doing what he was asked or told to do from the time, in 2004, that O'Brien's eventual ascension to the chair was presented to him as a fait accompli, to NBC's more recent offer of the neither-fish-nor-fowl half-hour late-night show, until the network's even more recent offer of "The Tonight Show" back. (And this only after he was assured that O'Brien would be leaving.) "This way, we keep our people working," Leno said. As for O'Brien, "He's a good guy. I have no animosity for him."

For his part, O'Brien, who had been targeting Leno directly, not just as a fellow victim of network incompetence but as the agent of his troubles -- "I just wanted to tell all the kids and everyone that you can do whatever you want in life," he half-joked recently, "that is, unless Jay Leno wants to do it too" -- laid off his predecessor-successor Monday night, reserving his unmitigated ire exclusively for NBC. It was not unusual even before this "little dust-up," as O'Brien called it, for NBC comics to mock their bosses -- on "30 Rock" it's just what they do -- but the attacks of the last week have been remarkably brutal to the point that one marvels that they're being aired at all.

"Morons," O'Brien sang to the tune sort of resembling the "Star Wars" theme. "Incompetent morons. These people are morons."

As last week, the mood on his set continues slightly hysterical, though given that O'Brien's affect is habitually a little hysterical, it does not read as a departure from so much as an intensification of business as usual, flavored with a caution-thrown-to-the-wind giddiness that comes from knowing that the worst will come. (I speak relatively, of course. The man his fans call Coco will walk away with enough money to last him several comfortable lifetimes; the terms of his buyout and of those for his staff seem to be all that stands between current speculation and imminent confirmation. But it isn't -- just -- about the money.)

"It's madness around here, Andy," O'Brien said to sidekick, Andy Richter, at the start of Monday's show. "It's crazy."

"It's crazy fun, though," Richter replied.

As it comes so rarely, the departure of a late-night host is usually made -- in the Johnny Carson model -- an occasion of celebration and tribute. O'Brien, even as he spits fire at his soon-to-be-former employer, seems to be determined to have his party. On Monday, the host announced a week of big stars, including Tom Hanks, Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler, delivered with the customary comic self-deprecation: "Great shows, well, not great -- great by my standards." 

"It feels sometimes I could have whoever I wanted this week," O'Brien told Monday's first guest, Martin Scorsese, but I really wanted you here because I thought that maybe, maybe, maybe ... There's got to be a role for me in some of your pictures."

Footage was shown of O'Brien fans who turned out in the rain Monday for a support rally at Universal Studios -- there were similar rallies nationwide -- and the ovation that greeted the host as he walked onstage was long and loud and loving. But so was that which greeted Leno an hour and a half earlier. Every host is a king in his own land, whatever his ratings, and you would not know it from the enthusiasm of their public that either man -- one the once-and-undoubtedly-future squarest man in late night, the other the strangest -- was anywhere but on top of the world.

-- Robert Lloyd

Video: Martin Scorsese on "The Tonight Show" last night. Credit: NBC

Comments () | Archives (43)

Bottom line is that if Connan had the ratings, NBC would never have asked him to leave. While Jay Leno usually beat CBS Dave Letterman, Connan couldn't seem to keep the movement going. None of this was Leno's fault. The big question is whether or not Jay moving back to 11:30 will also result in the ratings he had before he moved to 10pm.

The Tonight Show was never the same once Carson left, but "late night" isn't even that anymore. Now that people can watch on their laptop, or TIVO and don't have to stay up passed 10pm.

Well, isn't this all just engineered to bring attention to BOTH shows?

This is NOT newsworthy....but ADVERTISING....

I think I care more about what Sara Palin is up to.

How long would Jay Leno have lasted on the Tonight Show if Johnny Carson was on at 10 p.m.?

Conan goes to Fox. Letterman remains strong. Kimmel has his audience. NBC stays in last place.

And America watches the Quality shows on Cable where people have talent, writers are used and it is worth watching.

Very insightful. May the best man (Coco) win.

Funny, I watched the clip back in 2004 where Jay explained the passing of the torch in 5 years to Conan. If he had a problem with it he certainly did not express it then or recently when they axed their entire 10 pm line up to put on his failed talk show. I find it incredibly hard to believe he is just a bystander to his own life. Jay has a history of being a horrible person. He stole the Tonight Show from David Letterman who he then blamed the behind the scenes trickery on his long time manager Helen Kushnick and then when she rubbed NBC the wrong way Jay fired her. Jay sold his sole to NBC. If NBC is looking for a reason as to why Conan was getting lower ratings, check his lead in. Who wants to watch Jay do the tonight show @10 then the Tonight show @ 11:30? Obviously no one. The affiliates were screaming and not at Conan. Their ratings were way down due to their 10 p.m. lead in (Jay Leno). It would only stand to reason that Conan could not make up that loss. Now Jay claims he is just being a good soldier...right.

Can we please just get this deal done for Conan...before Fox becomes Twentysecond Century Fox.

I think he can find comfort with $40,000,000 MORE in the bank and time to land some other gig at another network. My unsolicited opinion is he isn't funny and never was and neither is Leno for that matter but ratings= dollars and if you don't have them you are gone.

Nooooo. Don't go Coco. We love you! See?: http://www.datingsupportnetwork.com/?p=187

I find Leno to be totally two-faced here. If you look at how he acted in the Carson/Letterman thing, what he promised in 2004, and how his show undercut Conan's, how can he intimate that this is just business as usual? Maybe the fake good-guy image will finally be gone for good. Looks like it is with about 90% of the celebs who have weighed in on this.

I just listened to Jeff Zucker on Charlie Rose's show. Zucker claims it is a business decision to change the schedule. Personally, I find Zucker to be incompetent for the job he has. I'm with Coco and know he will find a place where he is appreciated. I'm boycotting NBC from now on.

It'll be interesting to see Conan's ratings go up over this debacle. I'm still watching Dave, but Conan is my #2 pick w/Ferguson & Kimmel tied @ 3 and Fallon after that...Leno doesn't even make me laugh. Well, up till now. Now I think he's just a big whinny baby who decided to back out of his deal. Hilarious! Watch NBC lose all their night time viewers after this...Good Luck w/Jay (you'll need it). Hell, I'd rather watch Carson (DALY) over Leno.

let's get on with it, don't go to fox conan...recall chevy chase, magic johnson and aresenio...no mans land dude

Conan's last shows are so much better than those long self-congratulatory "retirement" weeks that Jay and Conan had before the switch. I certainly found Jay's explanation incredible and don't believe it. It didn't help that he kept chuckling nervously during it. Nobody does a heart to heart chat like Dave. The clumsiest aspect to Lenos apologia was the announcement before the commercial that it was coming. I would also say that Conan's standing O's appear more spontaneous that Jay's and Jay's didn't really get going until the damage control campaign kicked in.

I'm shocked to learn that either of these shows have audiences.

Seriously? Does Leno not get it? He sucks in any time slot they put him in.
I'll follow Conan to FOX or watch Dave but NEVER the unfunny Leno. I'm insulted by his dumbed down humor. GO AWAY JAY!

Team Conan. NBC leaves my TiVo lineup after this Friday. So long.


Good riddance to bad rubbish. Conan was extremely unworthy of the Tonight Show. It was a travesty to put him there, but NBC is redeeming itself slightly with the undoing of that situation. Conan isn't funny. His jokes are childish toilet humor. They're not even good toilet humor. They're more like generic, bland toilet humor.

How fabulous would it be if Conan inks the termination deal w/ NBC, and then CBS issues a press release shortly after confirming that Conan will take over for Letterman effective the end of Conan's no-compete?

CBS gets a viable replacement for an aging Letterman and gets to poke a sharp stick in NBC's eye. Conan gets $40 million (maybe less if future deals reduce severance payout), get to tell jokes at 11:30, and get a real opportunity to slam Leno in ratings head-to-head. And Letterman gets to once again pass the late night torch to Conan in a move that he can be sure will infuriate the NBC bosses and gives him another jab at Leno.

Make it happen CBS!


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