How Bad Are We Really Prepared to Feel For Conan O'Brien?


I have a hunch. Television historians around America will forevermore note Jan. 13, 2010, at around 12:14 a.m. as the precise moment that the Great Conan O'Brien Blowback against NBC finally began its fade. After all, that was when O'Brien welcomed Chuck star Zachary Levi to his Tonight Show couch, only to have his guest interrupt him with an earnest, solemn expression of support. "I know it's your show -- at least for a little while longer -- but I want to say a couple of things before the plug is officially pulled," Levi said. "Everyone at Chuck, myself, millions of people, everyone here in this audience, I think we can all agree that you are one of the funniest, one of the kindest, and one of the classiest acts to ever grace late night. [...] Wherever you go, however this shakes out, I just want you to know that I hope that we get to hang out again."

Which, as a viewer, I don't doubt or disagree with. But really. People. Let's get a hold of ourselves.

Whatever happens in the reshuffling of NBC's late-night talent, it should be noted that Conan O'Brien was not diagnosed with a terminal illness, nor is he going to prison, nor is he being deported or shot into space in one of Jeff Zucker's corrugated-tin escape pods retrofitted for O'Brien's lanky frame and towering hair. When the 46-year-old host's Tonight Show reign finally fizzles out next month, it won't even mean the end of Conan O'Brien on television.

This is clear, right? Conan O'Brien is not dying.

I'm not going to be that default contrarian who attempts to defend NBC's handling of its late-night programming and, by extension, its viewers, its hosts and their respective staffs. I kind of love the National Moment we're having at the network's expense. Coco's anger yields a wallop and a burn that comes from a very specific cultural leverage, and his monologues this week have made for fascinating TV. I sincerely hope this upheaval results in the kind of regime change that NBC needs to reinvent itself as a legitimate or even a functioning network. Moreover, I wish to see O'Brien happy and his audience, of which I consider myself a part, even happier.

And here's the "but": How bad are we really prepared to feel for this guy? Why do we feel bad in the first place? O'Brien isn't the first man to ever move house and family cross-country for a job only to realize the grass wasn't greener, nor the job even secure. (Though he is in a minority of those men whose transfers netted him a contract worth anywhere from $50 million to $80 million.) Reportedly, his deal with NBC doesn't specify the precise windows during which he'd broadcast, an unusual, network-favoring loophole for a late-night pact. O'Brien's waves of supporters may be united in their outrage and loyalty, but good luck finding a majority that says The Tonight Show actually exceeds the quality and consistency of Late Night With Conan O' Brien.

In fact, this shuffle may be the best possible scenario for O'Brien and his fans. He'll land somewhere that wants him -- somewhere without the burden of a prime-time experiment siphoning talent from his stage and morale from his crew. Somewhere he'll be welcome as the niche product he is as opposed to being penalized for it. Somewhere whose motivation is a profitable, entertaining show, and not just the mere prospect of sticking it to NBC by wedging O'Brien back into 11:35 opposite an obviously insurmountable Jay Leno and David Letterman. "My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work," O'Brien summarized in his statement Tuesday. Exactly, and fair enough.

Not as fair, though, is the entitlement complex taking shape around O'Brien's cult of personality. Its undercurrents roiled Tuesday in monologue jokes like, "Hello, my name is Conan O'Brien, and I may soon be available for children's parties," or, "When I was a little boy, I remember watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and thinking 'Someday, I'm going to host that show for seven months.'"

I laughed, I winced. Of course O'Brien earned the gig, and of course he and NBC had a deal for him to inherit it from Leno, which he did. But if affiliates show up outside 30 Rock with pitchforks, torches and threats over collapsing local news ratings from Leno's lead-in, and O'Brien's Tonight Show is getting slammed in the ratings compared to Leno's edition a year ago, what else was NBC supposed to do? This is business. Does it make it ethical? No. Does it make anyone happy? Power-politician Leno, perhaps, and most certainly Letterman. (Though, in backlash damage-control mode, Leno's already spinning his own displeasure with NBC by supposedly threatening to leave the network himself. Talk about an entitlement complex.) Was O'Brien screwed? Without a doubt.

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  • stretch65 says:

    "People. Let’s get a hold of ourselves."
    I bet if you were to check what people were doing at 12:14 am - that would be one of them...

  • SugartitsMcFirecrotch says:

    It seems to me that Leno must know where the bodies are buried at NBC (perhaps from the Letterman vs. Leno wars?) for them to continually screw over Coco for The Chin, who has become a cartoonish, unfunny hack (woe to the sharp, funny, self-written stand-up he used to be before TTS). I haven't watched the Not-Ready-for-Prime Time Leno and certainly won't watch the Leno: Condensed Version.
    I felt bad for Conan when the Leno Prime-Time experiment was announced - he must have felt like "What do I have to do to shed this hackneyed asshat??!" . . . and now that the experiment has been determined to be unsuccessful (thank Buddha NBC doesn't conduct medical trials, we wouldn't have the polio vaccine unless it had been discovered in under seven months) - these broadcasting poindexters want to stick it to Conan AGAIN!
    I applaud him for refusing to be NBC's bitch and empathize with the desire to get some digs in (even if they aren't always funny or witty elegance).

  • peliculita says:

    I completely agree. The only reason that I can come up with as to why NBC doesn't just ditch Leno altogether is that he must have some mob connections. Why else would NBC still support him? They say he's been around the longest on NBC, but it's not actually true. Sure, he had been making appearances on TTS with Carson since the 70's, but only as a featured comedian or guest host; he wasn't actually a full-time employee until the early 90's when he got the Tonight Show. Conan has been a host of an NBC show since '93 and before that was working as a full-time writer for SNL since the mid 80's. So arguably, Conan's been around the longest and with a better résumé at that.

  • Ethan says:

    My point in all this is, this is just another example of internet band-wagon jumping.
    aka, it's now cool to hate conan because there is a lot of support for him.
    it's just contrary bullshit, can't we all go back to mindlessly supporting James Cameron movies.

  • Keiko says:

    Say what you want about ratings, but when it comes down to it, Jay was the one with the show that was so bad the affiliates demanded it be taken off, not Conan.

  • Rick Boston says:

    It's not about feeling sorry for Conan - it's about hating the thieving, manipulative, UNFUNNY, operator that is Jay Leno.
    He FAILED in the 10 time slot, hurting Conan's chances of success by failing to provide a strong lead-in - and Conan is the one punished?
    Leno should be put out to pasture.

  • strangerdanger says:

    It's ratings, people. Leno beat Letterman every night. Conan lost to Letterman every night. Couldn't be any simpler. Tough to feel sorry for someone who wallows in self-pity whilst looking to trouser tens of millions in payoff. If Conan had beaten Letterman in the head-to-heads, then Jay's chin would be on the block. But he didn't.

  • peliculita says:


  • Robert J Braud says:

    OK. We watch a lot of NBC shows. We are not big fans of Conan but give the guy a chance - he erned it and we support him by watching his show most nights. Jay was getting tired at 11:35 PM and his time was up. He has a great following and I am sure he can get a lot of stand-up jobs if he wants them. It is time for Jay to step aside and give Conan his shot. If we are looking for a replacement for Johnny then give it a rest. Craig Furgson is the best on late-night but we want NBC to support Conan.
    We feel badly for the people who work for Jay most of all - writers, musicians and stabe peiople who will now be out of work.

  • Fresh says:

    When Jay Leno was on at 11:35 hosting the Tonight Show I felt like a lot of the Conan fans were watching his show while waiting for Conan. So Jay Leno's ratings were basically his own fans + Conan's fans. Then when he moved to 10 however many of his fans went with him and Conan's fans stayed with Conan to watch The Tonight Show. So obviously Conan's numbers weren't going to be huge yet because he needs time to build his version of the Tonight Show. Then it will be a Conan/Fallon combo and since the younger demographic loves them I'm pretty sure in the long run they are the best choice. Out with the old in with the new.. eventually that's what always happens. So I don't know what NBC is thinking. I thought they were supposed to be about long term success

  • Tim Aldrich says:

    Dear NBC: Unfortunately this may be the last time I will ever contact your business or support any functions or participate in any NBC programming. I am 100% absolutely appalled you are removing Conan O'Brien from your list. He is the leader in generation X and younger talk show hosts. Speaking for the majority of individuals in my age group and for the future of comedy, you're company has made a drastic mistake. Jay Leno is washed up, boring, and does not have the genuine raw sense of humor that O'brien portrays. I'm not one to threat nor am I one to ever post/write about complaints, but I am passionate that I will NEVER watch your shows ever again and will dedicate my life to supporting the boycott of NBC. Conan is the funniest, most original comedian you have between all of your programming schedules throughout all your networks. I am sorry that not only have you lost all support for your business, but I assure you I will voice my opinion through my large network of friends/business partners.

  • BethAce says:

    I think the reason people are all aflutter about this (to the degree they are and for the durration they've been) is not 100% for Conan, it's the combination of factors. 1) Leno's numbers when he took the spot weren't great at first either and he was given time to establish himself in that slot, 2) The entire staff of the show (not just Conan) moved across country for the gig and while Conan won't have trouble the rest might, 3) if NBC decides they want to they can pay and keep Conan off other networks which means he, his staff, and the people who enjoy his show are all out of luck.
    I am one of those who would chose to watch Conan over Leno or Letterman if he went to another network in the same time slot, but I get that I'm probably a minority because there's too much overlap between Conan's target audience and Letterman's and Letterman is established in that time slot (one reason, though far from the only one, that Conan's numbers aren't as good as Leno's were). Which is why I worry that Conan will choose to take a pay out and stay off the air for the next 2-3 years. You see, I'm sure Conan gets it too. He probably knows that another show in that slot on another network is not a good idea against both Leno and Letterman. Hence, the extreme outpouring of support for Conan. I think everyone is just desperately hoping that something will change and that this doesn't mean we won't see anymore of Conan (in this format).
    I think he (and his guests) should give as much time as they want to this. Even if every guest he has on from now until he leaves interupts him to give their support, his interviews will still be about 1000 times more entertaining that Letterman who pretty much leaves his guests to their own devices instead of actually interviewing them. What would have been really great is if Zachary Levi had taken some of his time on Letterman's show (he wouldn't have had to interrupt since Letterman wasn't really saying anything anyway) to voice his support for Conan.

  • bob says:

    Conan sucks. Hes never been funny and never will be. Why he has a show is a mystery.