In NBC's late night civil war, it makes short-sighted sense that NBC has sided with Team Leno
After months of downplaying all the various ways NBC screwed him over in giving him the Tonight Show then allowing Jay Leno to clone it and then trying to give it back to Leno, host Conan O'Brien finally decided to fight back.
First came his witty-yet-deadly serious letter Tuesday calling the plan to place a half-hour of Leno at 11:35 p.m. before his show at 12:05 p.m. the "destruction" of the 60-year-old Tonight Show. It was, at last, a public declaration from O'Brien acknowledging what many thought the moment NBC agreed to air Leno's best Tonight Show bits at 10 p.m. under a different name.
Then he offered Tuesday's brilliant Tonight Show, which featured a raft of smart comedy bits mercilessly lampooning the situation and treating the episode like it might be his last. Guests Zachary Levi and Tom Brokaw picked up on the vibe, complimenting O'Brien in the way you might eulogize an accomplished friend who died a courageous death.
Watching all this, you had two reactions: Even O'Brien seems to think he's halfway out the door.
And whoever has to host a comedy show at 11:35 p.m. on NBC has a hopelessly broken franchise to fix.
Checking the flow of sentiment on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, you see the division in public comments. Twitter messages are signed Team Leno and Team Conan, as the late night audience splinters into O'Brien fans who resent the way their hero has been shortchanged and Leno fans who believe their guy is taking blame for making the best of NBC's crappy decisions.
TIME TV critic James Poniewozik has an excellent blog post wondering if NBC didn't suggest a half-hour Leno show at 11:35 p.m. just to get O'Brien to quit. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, what could Leno really do in a half hour anyway -- a monologue and Headlines every night?
There's a scene in the book and movie about Leno's grabbing the Tonight Show from David Letterman, called The Late Shift, in which a producer sadly tells Letterman that the program he wanted -- the pioneering late night franchise turned into classic television by Johnny Carson -- doesn't exist anymore.
This latest bit of soap opera has crumpled whatever remains of that proud legacy. No matter who gets the time slot now, they'll have to face an audience deeply divided over competition between Leno and O'Brien, and it seems obvious NBC now just wants Leno back in his old timeslot, with Jimmy Fallon playing the New Conan.
Given O'Brien's struggles in the timeslot, it's a decision which still makes sense; O'Brien seems less of a threat than Leno on another network, and the distant hope remains that the old Tonight Show host can return to his former glory when the dust settles.
You always hear stories about how Hollywood chews up good people with a ruthless brutality. But never has the process been so public and slow-moving than the way NBC has damaged O'Brien's career, mortally wounding one of TV's biggest franchises in the process.
Here's some of my favorite O'Brien bits from last night: