How Jay Leno Screwed Conan O'BrienS

The New York Times has a massive piece in this week's Sunday Magazine by Lynn Hirschberg on Conan O'Brien and the changes taking place at NBC as O'Brien prepares to take over as host of the Tonight Show on June 1, while Leno moves into the nightly 10pm slot.

Of particular interest was how Leno, unwilling to go quietly off to Vegas or Branson to peddle corny jokes to the olds, grew disenchanted over time with the network's decision to appoint O'Brien as his successor in 2004, eventually forcing NBC head Jeff Zucker into offering him the nightly 10pm slot over fears that he might jump to ABC or FOX.

"Five years ago," Leno continued, "I think they thought we wouldn't still be on top. Back then, I said, ‘Whatever you want.' I don't have an agent. I don't have a manager. If the girl doesn't want to sleep with you, that's O.K. I'm not one of those guys who says, ‘Why don't you want to sleep with me?' I say, ‘O.K., great - let's be friends.' You want to make a change? That's great - we'll make a change."

As he became increasingly disgruntled, Leno began entertaining offers from other networks. Although viewership on network TV is shrinking and advertising is migrating to cable and (to a lesser degree) to the Web, topical shows with comedy and celebrity guests are inexpensive to produce and maintain a consistent appeal. Leno is a name brand - he could easily move to ABC or Fox and become O'Brien's competition, which is what NBC feared. "It became clear that Jay wanted to continue telling jokes on television at 11:30," Zucker said. To entice him to stay at NBC, Zucker offered Leno a daytime show, a cable show, a series of specials. When Leno turned all those down, Zucker proposed a half-hour show, five nights a week at 8 p.m. The idea was that Leno would just do his monologue, riffing off the events of the day. "Eight p.m. doesn't work," Leno explained to me. "I never assume anyone is watching because I'm good-looking. You're selling a product. In my particular instance, the product, hopefully, is jokes. With ‘The Tonight Show,' you have the jokes plus Angelina Jolie, and that's a little more enticement. A half-hour monologue every night doesn't seem like enough enticement."

Zucker made his final plea: an hourlong show at 10 p.m., five nights a week. To Zucker's surprise, Leno agreed. "I have believed, for a long time, that there should be a daily prime-time program with a topical format," Zucker told me. "I've never said this publicly before, but I approached Oprah Winfrey about her doing a daily hourlong show in prime time. She turned me down, but I rekindled the idea with Jay. The advantage of a show like that is it's easy to join, DVR-proof due to its topicality and different. Too much on television is the same show recycled. This will be a show that can provide an answer for the changing times we live in."

And then this paragraph near the end of the piece where O'Brien reflects back on the early struggles of his Late Night show is just fucking funny.

Critics attacked him (Tom Shales suggested in The Washington Post that "the host resume his previous identity, Conan O'Blivion"), and the NBC executives were anxious to replace him with Greg Kinnear, who was on the network at 1:30 a.m. "One executive," O'Brien recalled, "particularly despised Andy [Richter]. He told me I'd never succeed until I ‘got rid of that big fat dildo.' That was the tone of the conversations between us and the network."

Yes Andy Richter is a big fat dildo, and we can't wait to see him back on a show with Conan.

Heeere's...Conan!!! [New York Times]