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May 8, 2017

Team Conan

As I watched Conan O’Brien host his final episode of “The Tonight Show” on Friday, I instantly recognized the broadcast as a spectacle I will regale my children with someday when they ask me the oddly specific question of what the late-night television climate was like during January of 2010. Partially, this is due to the fact that not only did O’Brien provide his audience and fans with a phenomenal final episode, but also ended it with – I couldn’t make this up if I tried – a full-fledged rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” performed by Max Weinberg and “The Tonight Show” band, with Conan playing guitar beside the likes of Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Beck on guitar, Ben Harper on slide guitar and Will Ferrell on lead vocals. Yeah, they went there. But the other reason I will remember this iconic broadcast forever is because it demonstrated, in the clearest possible manner, why NBC is the proverbial whipping boy of the current broadcast stations.

While the details concerning the NBC late-night situation are both numerous and complex, I have come to one conclusion: Conan has been ousted from his deserved position of hosting what he calls, “The greatest franchise in broadcast history.” When NBC asked Conan to move his broadcast of “The Tonight Show” from 11:35 p.m. to 12:05 p.m. to accommodate for the floundering “Jay Leno Show,” he immediately recognized the damage the time slot change would do. As he said in his statement concerning the matter, “Some people will make the argument that a time slot doesn’t matter. But with ‘The Tonight Show,’ I believe nothing could matter more.” Following NBC’s decision to finalize the schedule change, Conan decided to leave instead of being pushed out of a position he earned by dedicating most of his adult life to producing quality content for the network.

Since his work as a writer for SNL in the late 80s and early 90s (you know, when it was actually good), O’Brien has been both a diligent worker and successful personality for NBC. As host of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” he served for 16 years, mostly at the top of the ratings for that time slot. Now, after only seven and a half months and a mere 146 episodes, NBC has bullied him out of a job that, “Every comedian dreams of,” as Conan said in his final address on “The Tonight Show” Friday.

As I watched one of the all-around funniest people on TV get forced out of the job he has not only sought for as long as he can remember but also worked two decades to earn, I realized this decision pretty much spells out why NBC is pretty much the Los Angeles Clippers of the broadcast television league. If one couldn’t tell before, it was extremely clear following the late-night schedule chaos that the overwhelming majority of viewers support Conan. This is demonstrated by the outpouring of fan support for Conan following the debacle, including staged rallies outside Universal Studios and the, “I’m with Coco” Internet movement. So in light of all this, why in the name of Ringo Starr did NBC think it was a good idea to push around one of its most popular personalities until he had no choice but to leave the network?

It seems like NBC hasn’t even been paying attention to its own broadcast history over the past two decades. Yes, when Conan O’Brien took over for “The Tonight Show,” ratings began to slip, but this entire fiasco was the opposite of the appropriate response.

Perhaps as proof of the treasure being carelessly cast away by the undeserving hands of NBC, Conan delivered a speech on his final show in which he refrained from bashing the network, instead praising and thanking them for the opportunity and work they were able to create together. Yes, even though he was mistreated and discounted by a network that he gave so much of his time and energy to, he had the class and grace to part ways with NBC with the kind of dignity and intelligence the network itself is clearly lacking. In 1993, NBC hired Jay Leno to do “The Tonight Show” mostly on the grounds that he was not only tremendously funny, but a team player as well. Now, when they perhaps need a man of similar character more than ever, they throw Conan away. The only thing I can say is this: I’m with Coco.

Dave Coffey is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at dscoffey@student.umass.edu.

Comments
3 Responses to “Team Conan”
  1. hipmonkey says:

    You wrote a whole article on the late night NBC screw up without mentioning what they did to David Letterman. Wow. BTW, I’m with Coco too.

  2. Bagwhan says:

    horrible display of insult after giving a speech to the young people about cynicism…Fraud Ferrell doing Ronny Van Zandt in that disrespectful way complete with barefoot and pregnant wife and too tight highwater bellbottoms, it was a mockery what they did at the end—-so thanks for telling us all not to be cynical but its ok to insult and mock—you 33m sell out…and now I find out the Selfish One had a staff of 200 people to surrond him with and they couldnt even make the ratings…yet each of those staff members got 60k severance for 7 months “work”…talk about blasphemy to the rest of us—oh, but its ok, it was’nt cynical…CoCo turned out to be Yoko…greedy and giving speeches to the rest of us..horrible ending….also mr free speech himself neil young would just as soon as knock me out for having an opinion that was different than his own…typical canadian liberal—defend your right until it disagrees with theirs…sheesh…says this is nowhere but lives and works in the States…nice Neil, real nice….you and Yoko ought to sing the next closing song together.

    but I do agree that Yoko got hosed by NBC—but if getting hosed gets one 33m, we all can say to others “dont be cynical, be kind”…he was not kind to the memory of Ronny Van Zandt with that chirade by Fraud Ferrell…great Conan can play the guitar, why didnt they feature him, instead of that joke Ferrell? I guess for 33m Yoko can do whatever he wants, the rest of us be damned.

    I dont buy the cynical speech…it was one last final cruel joke on all of us complete with crocodile about to happen tears. Ferrell didnt match the words Yoko…you had me until you rolled him out and made a mockery and insulted someone who didnt deserve to be. That wasnt humor, it was a brand of cynicism by an East Coast Elitist who now happens to be a multi millionaire making a Social Commentary on how he perceives the common man.

  3. Dave Coffey says:

    I just wanted to take a minute to thank both of the commenters very much for taking the time to read this piece, as well as share their thoughts. I’d also like to add to a couple points they made.

    @hipmonkey – You’re 100% right, there is SO much more backstory (including the bit about Letterman that you mention here) to this whole scenario that I simply didn’t have a large enough word count to cover all the historical intricacies of the Tonight Show late night dynasty. If I had more room, I certainly would have covered the entire Carson-Leno-Letterman debacle of the early nineties, as well as a few more details regarding the actual timeline and development of the NBC late night schedule change. Alas, I only had so much room. Either way, thanks for the valid input.

    @Bagwhan – With all due respect, I think you may be overanalyzing/overlooking a few things. First off, they didn’t play “Freebird” as a satirical moment of poking fun at Van Zandt, or anyone from Skynard, I’m fairly certain Conan just wanted to play the song on his last show with his friends (Will Ferrell, Max Weinberg, Beck, etc.). Additionally, I would certainly say they did “feature him”, in that he played the guitar solo INSTEAD OF BILLY GIBBONS. Perhaps we could both agree that Mr. Ferrell is not the most polished vocalist for the job, but this final “swan song”, if you will, was hardly a “chirade”, nor an “insult” or “mock” towards the original performers. In reality, the song’s lyrics quite accurately describe Conan’s current situation to a depth that I don’t feel I really need to elaborate on much if you know his history with the network. Second, $33 million is a LOT of money, but the thing that stood out to me was that Conan himself refused the deal until NBC agreed to pay his entire staff a severance package as well. To me, that was genuinely virtuous of him, considering that not only did Conan uproot his life and move across the country to do a show he was not just promised but also spent two decades at the network earning, his entire crew did as well. Most of these crew members, camera people, lighting people, writers, etc. are obviously not as well off as Conan himself, but at first stood to get NO severance pay from NBC until Conan demanded it, which I applaud him for. Let us not forget that none of this would have even had to occur if NBC, the network Conan has devoted nearly his entire professional career to, had allowed Leno and/or Conan to exit their contracts a few years ago, which they should have done in the first place. Lastly, I don’t see how you could possibly twist Conan’s speech into anything but a tactful and heartfelt final address. He’s no idiot; he knows out of all the late night hosts, he controls the younger demographic. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it nigh impossible to fault him for asking his predominantly young audience in a dignified and articulate manner to work hard, be kind and resist cynicism. Thanks again for your valid input.

    Dave Coffey
    Daily Collegian Columnist

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