Open Mic

With Conan Debuting on TBS, Here's the Real Reason He's No Longer on NBC Right After Stations' Late News. And What Conan Should Really Be Doing

Chuck Ross Posted November 8, 2010 at 7:51 AM

Conan O’Brien’s debut onTBS on Monday, Nov. 8, 2010, coincides with my just having finished New York Times national media correspondent Bill Carter’s book “The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy,” which hit bookstores on Nov. 8th as well.

It's always tough to write a compelling book about a series of events that are so recent and that so many of us in the TV business followed so closely.

But as our friend Bill has proved before, he’s quite adept at getting those most intimate with the events to talk openly and frankly, and he’s got a good sense of storytelling.

A few of my takeaways from the book.

First, it seems to me that the biggest reason Conan is not still hosting “The Tonight Show” at 11:35 p.m. on NBC has to do with two contractual issues.

The first has to do with what was clearly a mistake by Team Coco, and one that O’Brien, if he wasn’t explicitly told about it at the time, should be suing someone for malpractice.

Here’s how Carter explains it. The mistake is brought to the reader’s attention during a dinner between Robert Morton (known as Morty), a former producer of David Letterman’s shows at NBC and CBS, Jeff Ross (no relation to me), who is O’Brien’s producer, and Rick Rosen, Conan’s principal agent.

During the dinner--which took place before Jay Leno’s weeknight 10 p.m. show was canceled, and before Conan was asked to move “The Tonight Show” to 12:05 a.m.—Morton spoke about how Letterman at CBS, and Leno when he was doing the “Tonight Show” at NBC, had provisions in their contracts stating that their respective shows would go on-air directly following the late local news on both affiliated and network-owned TV stations.

Writes Carter: “You guys got that for Conan, too, I’m sure,” Morty said.

He waited while watching Rick and Rosen exchange a little look.

“You didn’t?” Morty asked, holding back his next thought, which was: You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Of course that led to NBC being able to come up with the idea of putting Jay back into late-night ahead of Conan.

The second contractual issue was a brilliant catch that attorney Ken Ziffren negotiated into Leno’s contract when Leno agreed to do the 10 p.m. show.

How brilliant? Well, heretofore, the most brilliant catch in the world—outside of Willie Mays running an insane distance and then catching a fly ball behind his back in the 1954 World Series—was Catch-22. That’s a doozy.

But it pales in comparison to the brilliant catch Ziffren put in Leno’s contract—and one which he got signed-off by those wild and crazy suits at NBC.

Again, as Bill Carter describes it:

“Ziffren responded with a request like none other [NBC’s Marc] Graboff has ever heard in more than twenty years in the business. He asked for a four-year pay-AND-play contract….Pay AND play meant that for the agreed upon time the network guaranteed both to pay the negotiated salary AND to keep the star’s show on the air. And if the contract were to be breached in that time, the performer had the right to sue, claiming damage to his career. In addition, a breach would mean instantaneous freedom for the star: no being sent to the beach.”

In other words, once NBC canceled Leno’s 10 p.m. show, they were in breach of his contract. If they did nothing he could sue them for a gazillion dollars AND walk across the street to Fox or ABC and start to compete against Conan and “The Tonight Show” the next night.

Seems to me if you combine the effect of Leno’s pay-AND-play contract and O’Brien’s lack of protection regarding having “The Tonight Show” start at 11:35 p.m., those two things alone set the stage for what happened. The rest is mostly ego and Hollywood posturing.

Including, I must say, Conan’s heartfelt but nonetheless incorrect reading in his “People of Earth” manifesto that his going on at 12:05 a.m. with a program called “The Tonight Show” would lead to the "destruction" of this venerable institution.

In Carter’s book, it’s Jerry Seinfeld who makes this point with fierce passion: “Nobody ever uses these show names,” Jerry says, his voice hitting the high register familiar from his routines when he addressed the most mind-boggling absurdities of life. “These names are bullshit words! How do you not get that this whole thing is phony? It’s all fake! There is no institution to offend. All of this 'I won’t sit by and watch the institution damaged.’ What institution? Ripping off the public? That’s the only institution! We tell jokes and they give us millions! Who’s going to take over “Late Night” or “Late Show” or whatever the hell it’s called? Nobody’s going to take it over! It’s Dave! When Dave’s done, that the end of that! And then another guy comes along and has to do his thing. That, to me, is an obvious essential of show business that you eventually grasp. Somehow that seems to have been missed by some of the people here.”

Seinfeld says during all of his years as a stand-up, at some point at every comedy club he was ever in one comic or another would eventually bring up Johnny Carson and “The Tonight Show,” and who would take over when Carson left. Seinfeld told Carter: “For like twenty years I had that conversation. And the one thing none of us realized was that, when you left, you were taking it with you.”

Conan is reportedly a student of TV history. But the point Seinfeld makes seems to be lost on him. O’Brien could disagree with it, but then he’d be a poor student.

Look at the history of “The Tonight Show.” First off, as NBC noted during the brouhaha, its hours have changed over the years. It’s started as early as 11:15 p.m., and has run as late as 1 a.m.

And the hosts of the show have all made it their own, as Seinfeld notes. Steve Allen, who hosted “The Tonight Show” for its first three years, could not have been any more different from his successor, Jack Paar.

Allen was comic and musical. Paar was a storyteller. Humorous and witty, yes, but the two men just plain ran at different temperatures, with different cadences.

And then came Carson. As Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh say in their bible-like guide to TV, “As emotional and likely to blow up as Paar was, that is how calm and unflappable Carson was.”

And clearly Leno is a lot different than Carson. Besides having different comic sensibilities, Leno is not a particularly polished interviewer, while Carson's interviews often sang.

Where does Conan fit in the pantheon of “Tonight Show” hosts? The closest I think he comes is actually to the first permanent “guest host” the show had. In Steve Allen’s last year of hosting the show, he also had a prime-time show, so he didn’t work Monday and Tuesday nights.

In his place was one of the true geniuses of the TV medium: Ernie Kovacs.

More on my Conan/Kovacs comparison in a moment.

First, I want to comment on a remark that was one of the nastiest I read in Carter’s book. And I was surprised by who said it: NBC’s Jeff Gaspin. Like most in the media, I’ve given Gaspin high marks for how candid he was during the Leno-O’Brien episode..

Here’s what he said that got my ire up: Gaspin is talking to Carter about how Conan might have decided to accept the offer to stay at NBC and do “The Tonight Show” later: “If he knew there was no Fox…,” Gapin mused. “If he knew he was going to end up on cable, do you think he would have done the same thing? The best you’re going to do is TBS?...”

Excuse me? And this is from the guy who runs NBC ‘s cable networks. How pejorative! And, in fact just plain not true.

Ask Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. I believe they are doing quite well, thank you. Wasn’t Stewart just named the most influential person in America? Or ask Tony “Monk” Shalhoub, who did very nicely on NBC’s own USA Network.

And up until a few years ago I assume Gaspin was deriding AMC as just some lousy movie channel. But now, with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” AMC has two of the most acclaimed shows on TV, let alone cable.

Conan will thrive on TBS. TBS and TNT have some excellent original programming already to go along with their syndicated and sports programming, and Conan will help the network that much more.

One last thing. If I were Conan, I’d actually think about doing a weekly program instead of a nightly one. That’s where my comparison with Kovacs comes in. Kovacs did lots of daily shows, but his clever, innovative genius really shone when he had the time to prepare a weekly show.

And I think Conan is a Kovacs-quality talent.#

[I'm assuming that most of you are far too young to remember Kovaks or his work. He died tragically in a car accident in January 1962, just days before his 43rd birthday. (To give you a time perspective, it was 10 months before Carson, 36,  would take over "The Tonight Show.") Through the magic of YouTube, here's a snippet of Kovacs' inventive, inspired work. These are the closing credits Kovaks did for a special he did on ABC--and probably the most imaginative closing credits seen on TV. Tell me you couldn't imagine Conan doing something similar...]