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Late Night Watch: Conan O'Brien, NBC and the storm before the calm

January 21, 2010 |  8:39 am

Wednesday came and went with no official word on the Conan O'Brien-NBC divorce -- the show "will most likely be wrapping up in the very near future," O'Brien remarked on Wednesday's "Tonight Show," an oddly vague way of saying, "Come Friday, we're outta here," already universally regarded as a fact. Indeed, NBC confirmed this morning that a deal had been reached.

This armistice should soften the tone of tonight's broadcast, but Wednesday night the battle was still on: "The good news," said O'Brien, "is that until NBC yanks us off the air we can pretty much do whatever we want and -- this is the best part -- they have to pay for it. So for the rest of the week we're going to introduce new comedy bits that aren't so much funny as they are crazy expensive." The first of these featured "the most expensive car in the world dressed up as a mouse," while a recording of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," chosen for the cost of the broadcast rights, played in the background. The supposed cost of the bit was $1.5 million, but that might just be joke money.

As to the undeniably real money, "it’s been reported," O'Brien said Wednesday night, "that before I agree to a final settlement with this network I want to make sure NBC takes care of my staff. At first they thought I was gullible – they said the staff would be taken to a big farm where they’d be allowed to run free forever." This buyout had reportedly been a sticking point in the negotiations, and the network, tired of the host getting all the good memes, finally went public itself on the matter this week: "It was Conan's decision to leave NBC that resulted in nearly 200 of his staffers being out of work," NBC said in a statement to the press. "We have already agreed to pay millions of dollars to compensate every one of them. This latest posturing is nothing more than a PR ploy."

Head peacock Jeff Zucker also appeared on "Charlie Rose" Monday night to defend his record -- he was "very comfortable" with his performance and that of his team over the last couple of years, he said -- and to say, as near as possible without actually saying it, that "homegrown star" O'Brien was hung up on trivialities, a "half-hour difference that he can't accept." He used the world "ultimately" a lot: "Ultimately we thought we'd come up with a solution that would work, but Conan wasn't happy with it," and though "we thought ultimately it would give Conan more flexibility to do the show that he's most comfortable with ... ultimately he couldn't get his head around it."

In its terminal stage, O'Brien's "Tonight Show" has been unusually, almost dangerously, giddy, but also increasingly genial. The guests now come for sentimental reasons, not because they have something to sell. On Wednesday, Adam Sandler -- who appeared on O'Brien's first week hosting "Late Night" a comedy generation ago and worked with him at "Saturday Night Live" -- rolled in wearing jeans and a New York Jets T-shirt to recall his own firing by NBC, and he stuck around on the couch, as in the old Carson days, when Joel McHale, from "The Soup" and "Community," followed him out. The night's "surprises" included Ed Helms from "The Office" and "The Hangover," serenading O'Brien at a grand piano: "We won't have to miss our best friend Conan/He'll be on Court TV during his trial with NBC." And the Masturbating Bear dropped by, as well, to masturbate.

The audience was, as it has increasingly been, full of love, chanting "Conan! Conan! Conan!" As the underdog -- if the word "underdog" may be allowed in a situation where the loser walks away even richer than before, and as they use it in professional sports, I guess it may be -- O'Brien has even gained the support of those who don't follow him habitually. He is the picked-upon odd kid in all of us, only odder: "Carrot head, carrot head," Sandler sang to him. "Last boy picked for every team; freckled freak, freckled freak; A bed-wetter with a steady stream." Watching the host, I imagined network executives thinking, "He's not going to get any less weird, or weirder-looking, over the next 20 years. We're well out of this."

But that is what makes Conan lovable, where Leno -- fundamentally a creature of the establishment, typically not the best position for a comedian -- is, at best, studiously likable. It's also why Leno's own jokes at NBC's expense don't ring quite true. Even though he has also been a victim of his bosses' bad planning and strange inspirations, he still looks more like "them" than "us." And, of course, he's getting his old show back.

Meanwhile, over on CBS, David Letterman, who has his own famous history with NBC, continued happily to comment from the sidelines. “They’re saying, Conan O’Brien, bless his heart, gets $32 million to walk away from NBC, to leave NBC, and I was thinking, ‘You know, when I left NBC, all I got was a restraining order.’”

-- Robert Lloyd

Video: Ed Helms on "The Tonight Show" on Wednesday / Credit: NBC