Watching Conan O’Brien take to the Tonight Show stage for what might be the final time, I felt emotionally conflicted. On the one hand, I want to be angry that NBC has treated him so poorly, trapping him in the middle of a business dispute and unfairly judging his show far too early for the sake of making other people happy. On the other hand, I want to show support for Conan, and being angry doesn’t entirely reflect how much I appreciate his particular brand of self-deprecation. So when Conan makes jokes about his imminent departure barring some sort of hail mary from NBC, are we supposed to boo to reflect the injustice, or are we supposed to cheer because we want CoCo to know we care?
And then I realized that for all of the emotional conflict I might be experiencing, Conan himself is having to mediate his anger with professionalism, and his sadness with comedy – for all of the verbal gymnastics we’ve been working with over the past number of weeks, trying to figure out how all of this is going to work out, it is nothing compared to what Conan O’Brien has been dealing with inside his head. So it’s that much more miraculous that what emerges in an official statement is pointed but civil, an argument not so much about what is being done to him but rather what NBC is doing to its own reputation, and to the position of the Tonight Show in its late night lineup. And, it’s that much more impressive that he proceeded to go onto his stage and be something that used to be enough to get you somewhere in this business: funny.
I don’t have much further extended thoughts that that, to be honest: while this issue is plenty fascinating, as we see how NBC deals with Conan’s departure and how long it takes Conan to end up at FOX (where it is expected he will be taking over the 11 O’Clock hour), I’m to the point where I simply want to acknowledge the cruel irony that I have paid more attention to Late Night now than I have in a very long time, and to remind everyone that Conan’s money is right on the money: while it might be easy to lay blame at the feet of Jay Leno, the problem here is a network who believes it can turn back time and who is throwing away a potential Tonight Show legacy in the process.
My one goal for the future is ensuring that this doesn’t just become a footnote in the larger story of NBC’s collapse: it is a turning point, a moment where we question the degree to which this network actually wants to craft a new identity, actually wants to climb its way out of the ratings basement. We’ll be debating about this for months, whether in terms of seeing how the network manages its late night situation or discovering just what the network will do with five hours of primetime. And yet at no point in that debate do I want us to forget that this was the time when NBC’s business decisions failed to respect someone who has been with their company for nearly two decades, tarnished the reputation of the man who they rushed out of his job sooner than he wanted in order to respect that person, and managed to end up with a bigger mess than what they started with.
I’m on Team Conan, but I’m also on Team “WTF NBC.” And something tells me that both memberships may be for life.