One of the most bizarre episodes in television ended last night when “Tonight Show” short-timer Conan O’Brien signed off. O’Brien took over the late-night hosting gig seven months ago and the ratings plummeted. Some say O’Brien was not being his usual off-beat, funny, edgy self; instead he was attempting to sell some bland image created by the corporate types.
Apparently in the past couple of weeks, O’Brien has gotten his comic groove back, because he has been hilarious and the ratings are up. Okay, some of that attention and interest is most likely due to the messy fiasco over the late-night NBC talk shows. No matter, O’Brien deserves the credit for his recent comeback.
When the NBC honchos announced a screwy plan to slot Jay Leno in a half-hour at 11:35 p.m. and bump “The Tonight Show” to 12:05 a.m. –O’Brien refused to go along with the deal. I don’t know what was more shocking, the plan or O’Brien’s reaction to it. More than just a personal ego-trip, O’Brien publicly defended the integrity and history of the legendary “Tonight Show” as being totally and completely linked to the 11:35 p.m. time start. He’s right. I would have expected that kind of passionate protection of the late night program from Jay Leno, the more successful “Tonight Show” host.
O’Brien’s refusal to roll over and accept the ridiculous NBC plan saved “The Tonight Show,” and probably Leno’s career, which has taken a major hit from his failing prime-time show. Oh, and O’Brien’s gutsy stand and classy exit are getting him tons of great publicity and probably legions of new fans who will follow him to his next gig. Way-a-go, NBC.
At the end of his final “Tonight Show” Friday, O’Brien took a gracious bow: “There has been a lot of speculation in the press about what I legally can and can’t say about NBC. To set the record straight, tonight I am allowed to say anything I want. And what I want to say is this: between my time at Saturday Night Live, The Late Night Show, and my brief run here on The Tonight Show, I have worked with NBC for over twenty years. Yes, we have our differences right now and yes, we’re going to go our separate ways. But this company has been my home for most of my adult life. I am enormously proud of the work we have done together, and I want to thank NBC for making it all possible.”
“Walking away from The Tonight Show is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Making this choice has been enormously difficult. This is the best job in the world, I absolutely love doing it, and I have the best staff and crew in the history of the medium. But despite this sense of loss, I really feel this should be a happy moment. Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show and, for 7 months, I got to. I did it my way, with people I love, and I do not regret a second. I’ve had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-11 parking lot, we’ll find a way to make it fun.” Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood site has more on O’Brien’s farewell and this whole late night talk show hosts mess.
O’Brien reportedly heads for the door with a hefty $45 million deal from NBC. The deal was held up for a while because O’Brien wouldn’t sign until NBC paid-off his staff and crew as well. More kudos for O’Brien for that. Also, O’Brien is free to hook-up a show with a new network in September. The new “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” kicks off March first.