As the divorce played out this week, the incongruity was almost operatic: The harder NBC tried to marginalize him, the better O’Brien performed. Even as his representatives negotiated his release, they held out hope until the end that the network would relent, that its PR disaster of a chief executive, Jeff Zucker, would recognize he was putting his money on the wrong host. “Conan’s almost like a cause now, like he’s representing something for the people of America, and NBC created it,” says O’Brien’s manager, Gavin Polone. “They created it, and now they’re going to let him go.”
Cutting O’Brien loose, as it turned out, was not quite the same as banking on Leno. His aw-shucks Everyman shtick notwithstanding, Leno has shrewd instincts, and as he revealed on air, his show had a two-year guarantee, a clause that left NBC with few options. (“It’s very clear that Jay wants to work until the day they take him out in a box,” a top network executive says.) In short, if one had to go, it might simply have been cheaper to get rid of O’Brien: His contract was easier to break.
If Coco, as he is nicknamed, should end up next fall at Fox, which is where the conventional wisdom has him, it will be quite a contest: O’Brien vs. Leno vs. Letterman vs. Stewart/Colbert. Leno will likely have worked his way back to dominance; despite the current perception that he was waiting in the wings for his successor to fail, his genial approach to comedy is a better fit with the Tonight Show audience. But at Fox, O’Brien will likely have the latitude to do a looser, wilder show. The question will be whether he can hold his own against Letterman’s acidity and the Comedy Central duo’s scorn by tapping into the same outrage- fueled, underdog passion that he unleashed in his farewell. If so, losing The Tonight Show might just prove to be the best thing that could have ever happened to him.