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

January 19, 2010 | 11:05 am


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

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