The End Is Near for Conan O'Brien

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I can't believe it's come to this.

As most people know by now, Conan O'Brien will be exiting The Tonight Show, likely after Friday's show. It's a bitter end to his truncated run on the show, and the real hell is how easily it could have been avoided if things had just played out the way people had said they would.

In 2004, NBC renewed Jay Leno's contract as host of Tonight for five more years and told him that after that time they'd like to move O'Brien out of his role as host of Late Night and into the prime Tonight chair in 2009. Leno wasn't too jazzed about the move, as he recalled to the audience of The Jay Leno Show on Monday, but he said he decided to retire to avoid the fiasco that went down in 1992 when he and David Letterman were gunning to replace Johnny Carson. Still, despite his apparent misgivings, Leno publicly supported the transition and wanted to spend his final five years as host having fun before passing the reins to O'Brien. And I know this because Leno said so. On TV:

The money quote of the whole thing is probably Leno saying, "When I took this show over, boy, there was a lot of animosity between me and Dave and 'Who's gonna get it?' and, quite frankly, a lot of good friendships were permanently damaged. And I don't want to see anybody ever have to go through that again, 'cause this show is like a dynasty: You hold it, and then you hand it off to the next person, and I don't want to see all the fighting and 'Who's better?' and nasty things back and forth in the press. So right now, here it is. Conan, it's yours. See you in five years, buddy."

And that should have been that. Jay's reference to the fracas that prompted David Letterman to leave NBC for CBS -- and which allowed Conan to take over Late Night when Letterman left -- should have been enough to provide for the future. But that didn't happen. Jay understandably didn't want to leave TV altogether, and NBC panicked and decided to keep him in the family rather than have him move to a competitor. Jay was installed at 10 p.m. ET five nights a week as a cost-cutting measure -- no more pesky pilots to greenlight or scripts to write -- and Conan's tenure as host of Tonight was tainted before it began. When Conan's version of the show debuted June 1, 2009, the dominoes were in place and waiting for a push.

That push was Leno's terrible ratings and the fact that Conan's were also below what Leno'd been getting in the slot. Leno's were also lower than NBC affiliates wanted to see. His failure was hurting their local newscasts at 11 p.m. ET, and they complained. This is where NBC should have canceled Leno instead of offering him a 30-minute show in the 11:35 slot, the home of Tonight, which would bump everything back half an hour. Or they could have given Leno a half-hour at 12:35, pushed Jimmy Fallon back to 1 a.m. ET, and dealt with a much smaller story. But they didn't count on Conan rightfully protesting the fact that Tonight's long-standing time slot after the news is a landmark, and that giving it back to Leno for a few minutes just to appease him wouldn't help anyone.

So that's where we are: Conan wouldn't budge and began working out a deal to leave NBC even as he took a scorched-earth approach to his monologues, lambasting Leno and the network brutally every night. Leno played the victim, as if he was powerless to do anything but go along with NBC's wishes. I understand that they had plans for him, but surely if he'd spoken against taking the 11:35 spot, the suits would have heard him out. Now Leno's current show is canceled, but he'll be returning to his old 11:35 ET spot after the Olympics. No firm word yet on where Conan will land, but with an eight-figure payout and guarantees that his staff and crew (who uprooted from New York to Los Angeles last year) will be taken care of, it could've been worse.

That's what's happening, but it's not what's happening. What's happening (the second one) is that everybody is rallying behind Conan in a huge way, and by "everybody" I mean "people who use the Internet to do more than forward cat pictures." Leno's crowd is older and slower: He appeals to the lowest of common denominators and traffics in broad, lazy, boring quasi-humor, high-fiving his audience of Burbank tourists before trotting out another Monica Lewinsky joke. Conan's fans, though, are more in tune with irony and media-savvy, and they're used to rooting for the weird underdog. Since this whole thing blew up, Facebook groups like Team Conan and I'm With Coco have sprung up to show support for Conan. He's the smarter, younger, weirder, and braver comic, and it's no surprise that his battle with Leno has taken on generational and classist overtones: If you like Conan, you're probably all right, but if you like Jay, you might need at-home care.

The rallies came to a head Monday with gatherings in New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles, and Conan and Andy Richter showed up briefly at the L.A. rally to thank the fans who'd put up with heavy rain just to piss off NBC. Conan's monologue kept twisting the knife, and he gleefully called the NBC chiefs "incompetent morons" while joking about his looming unemployment. It was another energetic show from an entertainer who knows what he wants to do, and if any number of things had happened the way we'd been told they would -- if Leno had actually stepped down, for instance, and stayed away -- it would have been just another episode, and not one more part of a countdown to the end.

I'm going to take a look next week at how it all went down in the end -- again, assuming that Friday marks Conan's final night as host of The Tonight Show, which is widely rumored but not confirmed as of this writing -- because there's plenty more to talk about. There's still a lot up in the air, too. But for now, let's enjoy the last of Conan's brief time in his dream job, taking no prisoners.

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