According to his 60 Minutes interview last night, Conan O’Brien is “a paranoid person.” Had he been in Jay Leno’s place six months ago, he’d have “done something else, [gone] someplace else.” And yet for all the brouhaha over the Tonight Show debacle, he says, “I didn’t get screwed.”
Indeed, it’s hard to consider oneself “screwed” when given $32 million to go away. Yet that’s the angle that O’Brien keeps playing, whether it’s singing tailored versions of “I Will Survive” and “On the Road Again” (“My own show again / I just can’t wait to have my own show again”) during his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour” or expressing a quizzical type of hurt during the 60 Minutes sit-down.
When Steve Kroft noted that Leno said he too was screwed during the Tonight fiasco, O’Brien replied: “How did he get screwed again? Explain that part to me. I’m sorry. Jay’s got The Tonight Show. I have a beard and an inflatable bat. And I’m touring city to city.” He then turned it quickly into self-deprecation, to the crew’s laughter: “Who can say who won and who lost? I’m laughing ‘cause crying would be sad.”
Even with all the NBC restrictions on what he can and cannot do, O’Brien has managed to remain very much in the pop culture consciousness. The Twitter account. The tour. The announcement of a new talk show on … um, TBS. 60 Minutes. Can Oprah be far behind?
The funny thing is, O’Brien needn’t be working this hard to remind everyone of how much smarter and savvier he is than his bête noire Leno. Just scour the Internet for memorable quotes from Saturday’s annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Some of the biggest laughs were had by Barack Obama, who introduced main speaker Leno as “the only person whose ratings fell more than mine” and expressed relief that he’d been slotted before the once-and-future Tonight Show host, as “We’ve all seen what happens when you take the time slot after Leno.”
Leno, true to form, relied on material that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Bob Hope monologue during the Truman administration. (Explaining Obama’s getting grayer since taking office, he ticked off, “Tough economy, two wars, health care fight, Iran, North Korea, his mother-in-law moving in with him.”)
For all the goodwill O’Brien’s been amassing, it’s worth remembering that his Tonight Show only truly caught fire once he’d lost the job. Freed from the obligations of presenting a more grown-up version of his Late Night, O’Brien gleefully took aim squarely at the equivocating NBC execs, righteously throwing caution to the wind and deliriously inviting an “anything goes” atmosphere to rule all.
But once his 11 p.m. TBS show begins in November, he’ll no longer be facing off against Leno and Letterman (at least not for the first 35 minutes); instead, he’ll be competing head-to-head with Jon Stewart, and then Stephen Colbert, both of whom have got the brainy/silly mix down pretty well themselves. Freewheelin’ only works in small doses, so don’t expect week after week of late-Conan Tonight Show anarchy. And, anyway, are Comedy Central viewers who’ve come to rely on watching Stewart/Colbert’s puncturing political popinjays going to switch over for Masturbating Bears/Self-Pleasuring Pandas?
The real money quote in O’Brien’s 60 Minutes interview had nothing directly to do with Leno or NBC. “I do not look down my nose at cable,” he told Kroft. “And I think anyone who does isn’t paying attention to television these days.”
That may be a hint that Team Coco, with a summer to put together something truly original, may be willing to build something that revolves around a familiar face but also expands beyond the chat program parameters to which we’ve all grown accustomed. If not, The Conan O’Brien Show—as it’s currently, imaginatively titled—will be just another talk show.