While former Tonight Show host Conan O’Brien is moving on with his career by embracing Twitter and headlining a hit comedy tour that visits Boulder on Sunday, David Letterman isn’t finished talking about O’Brien’s well-publicized feud with Jay Leno and NBC.
“I’ve known Jay since 1975, and when we were first hanging around, everybody loved Jay,” Letterman told told Dr. Phil when they discussed the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien controversy that captivated and entertained America a few months ago. “He’s so funny, so engaging, so compelling … but then there’s also this other side of him where he’s just a complete boob. He can’t help himself.”
Those are fairly strong words, but nothing compared to the nightly whuppin’ Letterman put on Leno earlier this year when the public discovered that Leno, the 60-year-old yawn-inducing host of The Tonight Show, demanded that heralded position back after spending less than a year in retirement (aka the 10 p.m. Jay Leno Show). Since his childhood, O’Brien dreamed of being the next in a long line of respected and hilarious Tonight Show hosts dating back to Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. He signed a deal in 2004 to replace Leno in 2009 after Leno’s 17-year stint on the Tonight Show and O’Brien handling Late Night afterwards. O’Brien had his chance. Before he knew it, that chance was gone.
Substituting Leno’s bland, middle-of-the-road monologues, gutless interviews and edgeless house band with racy and zany skits, cutting remarks on current events, an impressive jazz group and a masturbating bear, the antonymous O’Brien attracted a younger, hipper and arguably sharper Tonight Show audience when he moved from the 12:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. spot to the 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. position in June of 2009.
In early January, after just seven months of hosting the Tonight Show, O’Brien was suddenly given two options by NBC, with no notice: Either give Leno his own show from 11:35 to 12:00 and go on just after midnight, or leave the network. In response, O’Brien released a written statement revealing his position.
“The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show,” he said. “I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it … but I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.”
Although it was reported that NBC paid O’Brien $45 million to settle his contract, basically paying him not to appear on television for a while, the behavior of both Leno and NBC was despicable. Support from other late-night heavies like Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson appeared immediately.
Jimmy Kimmel, for example, came out dressed up as Leno for his first edition of Jimmy Kimmel Live since the controversy went public, telling his audience, “Hello, my name is Jay Leno, and let it hereby be known that I’m taking over all the shows in late night — beginning with this one!” Kimmel also joked that it was great to be on ABC, also known as “Always Bump Conan.”
Essentially, Leno walked away from The Tonight Show in 2009 after almost 20 years at the helm and voluntarily handed the show over to a younger successor who made his way through the trenches of later-night talk show hosting. In 2004, when he announced his impending retirement, Leno called The Tonight Show a “dynasty,” saying, “You hold it and hand it off to the next person. Conan, it’s yours! See you in five years, buddy!” Then Leno took the show back after half a year, ending both O’Brien’s dream and Leno’s respectability.
But now, the 47-year-old O’Brien is barnstorming across the country with his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television” tour, featuring performances by O’Brien, his usual house band (minus its leader Max Weinberg), young comedians like Reggie Watts, and loads of surprise guests, including a certain self-servicing bear. O’Brien joined Twitter to promote the tour and now has almost two million followers on that site and Facebook combined, and his teamcoco. com blog is a hit.
O’Brien recently inked a deal with TBS to host a show on the cable network beginning in November, but reveling in his refreshing new experience as a touring performer is good enough for the poofyhaired Harvard graduate for the time being.
“No matter what I do, tonight your asses are mine,” O’Brien told a capacity crowd at San Francisco’s 3,000-capacity Masonic Center two weeks ago. “You can’t change the channel.”
On the Bill
Conan O’Brien performs at Macky Auditorium on Sunday, May 9. Comedian Reggie Watts opens. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $39.50. Macky Auditorium, CU campus.