On Wednesday, January 13, as the job of his dreams began to flicker and dim—as The Tonight Show, the most stable late-night-TV franchise, found itself on the verge of being bumped into tomorrow—Conan O’Brien summoned his writers to the fourth floor of the show’s $50 million Universal City compound.
The day before, he had stood in the luminous studio NBC had built for him and read his instantly famous “People of Earth” letter, a carefully crafted declaration of defiance that left him close to tears. “I cannot express how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it,” O’Brien said. “But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.”
His writers, nearly all of them New Yorkers who had followed him west last year, were, frankly, not so sure that being bumped to 12:05 a.m. was such a bad compromise. The Jay Leno Show had been a hapless experiment at 10 p.m., and the scheme to reinstate Leno at 11:35 p.m. while still calling O’Brien’s show TheTonight Show had a ruthless pragmatism to it. As impressive as it had been to witness a multimillionaire entertainer tell a bumbling network to take its job and shove it, the writers had worries, families, and every reason to want to hold on.
Pinched and pale, his normally resplendent rooster’s comb tamped down by a ball cap, O’Brien opened the daily brainstorm with a challenge: Have fun. Pedal to the metal. Go, go, go. “He was like, ‘Guys, we’ve been handed a golden comic opportunity,’ ” says Rob Kutner, a monologue writer who left an Emmy-winning job at The Daily Show to join O’Brien in L.A. “You know, like, ‘You’re going to remember this piece of history forever.’ It was almost like he was getting off on the uncertainty, like he was invigorated by the craziness.”
The result—after investing so much in a job that was perhaps never the ideal fit, after getting trounced in the ratings week after week—was an electric few nights of comedy, maybe O’Brien’s most compelling ever. In his fury at NBC’s dysfunction and Jay Leno’s compliance, he managed to be both trenchant and dignified, self-deprecating without being self-pitying. (“I just want to say to the kids out there watching: You can do anything you want in life—unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.”) That he was self-righteous as well did not trouble his audience; it provided him with a spine that turned his usual amiability into something nastier and more potent. He landed A-list guests, including Tom Hanks, Will Ferrell, and Neil Young for his final broadcast. By the time O’Brien signs off tonight, with a $33 million buyout and a green light to jump to a rival network as early as September, it will be on a wave of populist support. A younger, tech-savvier constituency—one that was more likely to watch TheTonight Show on DVR or Hulu and was now tweeting its allegiance to Team Conan over Team Jay more than 50 to 1—had remade him, with viral swiftness, into something he had not sought to be and, as a fantastically wealthy Harvard-educated showman, did not exactly match: a folk hero for the downsized age.
If NBC had been patient with him, as patient as it had been when he was a gangly, untested Simpsons writer poised to take over the Late Night show, as patient as it had been with Leno when he grappled with his own Tonight Show growing pains, O’Brien might have evolved. The cerebral jester might have wriggled out of the straitjacket of a 55-year-old network institution, an anachronistic comic form that is designed to be all things to all people, and recovered the 2.5 million viewers who had defected since Leno passed him the torch. Or not. By undermining him, though, NBC did for O’Brien what he had, until then, not done on his own: It transformed him from a beta to an alpha and defined him, finally. “Conan’s been a good soldier for decades,” says one executive at a rival network. “I think they severely underestimated the good soldier who, at the end, is just tired of being pushed around.”
It was what some Hollywood insiders were calling O’Brien’s “Hugh Grant moment,” an allusion to the struggles that Leno once had trying to fill Johnny Carson’s shoes. (Ratings were lackluster, until Grant, snared for soliciting a prostitute, used the show to fess up—a pop-culture moment that cemented Leno’s reign as late-night TV’s top host.) But this was not the luck of getting a good guest. The appeal of the show was watching Conan himself morph night by night. O’Brien’s ratings soared during these last weeks—he was suddenly doubling David Letterman’s audience in the key 18-to-49 demographic—and for a brief moment, he suggested just how good The Tonight Show, in his hands, might have been.
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.