watch your step
By Liz Davies
The recent “pushing out” of Ann Curry from The Today Show brought back a flood of memories from a similar event: The “Conan/Leno Fiasco of 2010.” That situation created one of the biggest controversies in recent television and media history. While there are several fingers to point in terms of who is to blame for the debacle, the shining star to emerge from that was one of my television icons, Conan O’Brien.
But first, a little background in case you lived under a rock from 2009-2010. Jay Leno announced his retirement from The Tonight Show several years before he was expected to actually leave the show in 2009. Conan O’Brien was named his replacement and gladly accepted. When Conan took over The Tonight Show, he stayed true to his typical style of entertainment: high energy, silly comedy. While some jokes that slipped by censors in the 12:35am timeslot of Late Night didn’t fly in the 11:35pm slot of The Tonight Show, Conan remained mostly the same as he did before. This, perhaps, could have been his biggest mistake; The Tonight Show audience may have been less accepting than the more nocturnal Late Night audience of his very upbeat comedic style.
About six months later, NBC announced plans for a nightly hour-long comedy show to be hosted by Leno during the 10pm timeslot. The network took a huge risk and knew it; they had to shuffle around their primetime programming and even cancel many shows to make room for a show that was taking up very valuable space.
However, neither Jay nor Conan’s new shows managed to live up to NBC’s expectations and solutions were sought immediately. Despite being offered a 12:05am timeslot for The Tonight Show, Conan turned it down and eventually left the station after months of heated negotiations.
The entire fiasco ended up humiliating everyone involved. NBC was criticized for handling the situation without sympathy for Conan despite offering several options to O’Brien. Leno’s 10pm show failed and he returned to The Tonight Show after months of negative press. And Conan was left without a job and publicly humiliated for reasons beyond his control.
Perhaps what’s most upsetting is that NBC didn’t even give Conan one full year as host of The Tonight Show before deciding to bring Leno back. It took almost two years for him to settle into the Late Night show during the 1990s, and as soon as he found his rhythm he found a core audience and the popularity he deserved.
Of course NBC had a certain loyalty to Leno and wanted to keep him on the network. But couldn’t they have decided that before they let Conan take his place? Conan made it clear that he was more concerned with loyalty to his crew, who had relocated from NYC to LA, and to Jimmy Fallon, who had taken over Late Night than doing what was in his best interests. It seems that Leno didn’t have the same priorities or ethical values. While it would be difficult for any comedian to turn down The Tonight Show, many argued that Leno betrayed Conan by taking the deal that pushed O’Brien into the land of unemployment.
The way Conan was fired created such a backlash and scandal that many were shocked that Ann Curry was fired in a similar way just a couple years later. Were both Conan and Ann Curry given a huge settlement in return for their firings? Yes; a reported $10 million for Curry and $45 million for O’Brien (which he split with his employees). But was it worth being so publicly humiliated? That’s debatable.
Whether or not you are a fan of the ginger-haired funnyman, you cannot deny that he handled most events during this time with class, dignity, and an unwavering loyalty to his morals and values. Any interviews conducted after-the-fact were also handled with sensitivity and tact that is rare in the entertainment industry. If you haven’t seen this unbelievably poignant speech from his final Tonight Show taping, take a look here:
Skip to around 30 seconds. Sorry for the quality, but you really have to see this monologue.
Luckily, Conan was able to bounce back after a legally mandated break. He landed Conan on TBS, and while the ratings may never reach Tonight Show levels, he was able to hold onto the same comedy and values that he’s carried with him throughout his time in show business. Conan explained the lessons he learned after he left The Tonight Show during his commencement speech to Dartmouth College last year. The next video is long, but it’s one of the most moving commencement speeches I’ve ever seen, and O’Brien explains his feelings after he left NBC. The shining star to emerge from this was O’Brien, as he proved his humility and loyalty in an industry that places little value on either of those qualities.