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The strange case of the dignified late-night hosts

January 12, 2010 |  8:25 pm

Conan

It’s a strange world indeed in which late-night show hosts act as models of clear-headedness, but Conan O’Brien’s recent letter to NBC is an admirable example of how to make the best of a bad situation.

From its opening admission that no one should feel sorry for him because “For 17 years, I've been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I've been absurdly lucky” to his conclusion 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,” O’Brien managed to express his indignation while still hewing resolutely to the high road. Oh, and he stands to get a cool $40 mil if he can get the lawyers to agree that he’s not quitting because by moving him and “The Tonight Show” to 12:05, NBC is effectively turning “The Tonight Show” into something else entirely, which constitutes a breach of contract. So he gets the money and public sympathy.

Canny indeed, but the fact is, he’s right and it’s hard to imagine that this is not precisely what NBC knew would happen when it first floated the idea of giving Leno a half-hour show.

O’Brien has, in fact, been a model citizen during the whole absurd ordeal; unlike Leno, he never used his monologue to express any kind of dissatisfaction with what was clearly an impossible and irritating situation. Following on the heels of Craig Ferguson’s call to stop tormenting the clearly psychologically challenged Britney Spears and David Letterman’s oddly mature bull-by-the-horns admission of adultery, O’Brien’s calm amid the storm seems to herald a whole new role for the late-night host: Standard Bearer of Temperance and Dignity.

Hard to imagine for men who have been known to don an Alka Seltzer suit (Letterman) or thrust a profane dog puppet into the limelight (O’Brien). But it’s a refreshing reminder that even as political pundits work themselves into a rabid froth of personal vindictiveness, there is professionalism to be had among at least one group of television hosts. It was interesting to note that only Leno made comedic hay of Letterman’s revelation that there had been an attempt to blackmail him regarding affairs he had had with staff on his show — Ferguson and O’Brien patently refused and even Leno’s jokes seemed half-hearted and obligatory. As Letterman’s former nemesis, Leno was almost contractually obligated to say something, but he did move on as quickly as possible.

Likewise, Letterman has kept a respectful distance, keeping his barbs aimed mainly at NBC executives rather than O’Brien or “Big Jaw,” with nothing but compliments for both of their shows, which have, of course, combined their low ratings to make him, Letterman, the new King of Late Night.

So it’s not like any of these guys are operating totally outside their own self interest, curing cancer or solving the healthcare crisis. Still at a time when forbearance and professional courtesy are not the social norm, it’s nice to see that neither are dead, not even on TV.

-- Mary McNamara

Photo credit: Paul Drinkwater / Associated Press

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