He survived more than 15 years under the immense shadow of Jay Leno’s chin.
He survived a major time slot controversy with NBC that resulted in the end of his show after only one season. He survived unemployment, living on a meager severance pay of $33 million.
Coming this November, Conan O’Brien is…the late night host at TBS.
No, this isn’t the voiceover for an upcoming film starring Tilda Swinton in a gender-bending role as the redheaded comedian — look it up, the resemblance is uncanny. Believe it or not, this is actually happening.
On Monday, the same day O’Brien began “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour” in Eugene, Oregon, TBS announced they are with Coco, hiring O’Brien to host an 11 p.m. late night show that will air Monday through Thursday on the cable network starting in November — a move that was also advocated by George Lopez, moving his show to midnight. This sudden news came as a complete shock yesterday, because up to that point many were predicting O’Brien, who was reported to be in talks with Fox, would return to network television after September when his prohibition via NBC ended.
Clearly, this unexpected move falls within the new direction of TBS executives, who made the decision to join the late night lineup last November with the premiere of “Lopez Tonight,” but the surprise is that it follows O’Brien’s intended path as well.
“In three months I’ve gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I’m headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly,” O’Brien said in a press release released by TBS.
The question, though, is whether the move is the right one for O’Brien.
When the former “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” host took over the long-running “Tonight Show” franchise last June as a result of NBC’s predetermined plan to have him succeed Leno, there were high hopes that O’Brien would thrive in Leno’s seat. He had eventually garnered a strong fan base during his later seasons in late night, and NBC figured audiences were ready for a shake-up after Leno’s 17-year run as host of “Tonight.”
Unfortunately, about everything that could have gone wrong did after O’Brien took his long-awaited post. O’Brien wasn’t receiving high enough ratings to please NBC execs, the “Late Show with David Letterman” passed the “Tonight Show” in ratings for the first time in years and “The Jay Leno Show” was struggling in its primetime position. Eventually, after NBC told O’Brien his show would be bumped from the traditional 11:35 p.m. slot to 12:05 a.m. in order to make room for a shortened version of “The Jay Leno Show,” O’Brien decided to take the money and run.
Since his departure from NBC, O’Brien has managed to still make headlines. He gained more than 300,000 followers within 24 hours of starting a Twitter account in February, and in March, he announced he would embark on a 30-city live tour from April through June. Without a doubt, there are still plenty of people on Team Coco, but are they willing to follow him to his new home at TBS?
Although O’Brien’s average ratings were never as high as Leno’s during his short tenure on the “Tonight Show,” the truth is he never really had a chance to improve. When Leno first took over for Johnny Carson in 1992 — also amid controversy — he didn’t take the ratings lead right away. Sure, Leno would eventually pull ahead in 1995, starting with his July interview with Hugh Grant, but he was dominated in the ratings by Letterman throughout his first two seasons. Leno also benefited from a much better lead-in than O’Brien. Whereas Leno had scripted television shows during his run, including the extremely popular “Must See TV” programs of the ’90s, O’Brien had to follow an unpopular “Jay Leno Show” every night.
The problem is O’Brien will be facing the same lack of lead-in when he starts this November at TBS. Currently, the cable network sticks to a regimented primetime course of comedy reruns like “Family Guy” and “The Office” or unbearable Tyler Perry sitcoms. Yet, somehow “Lopez Tonight” has managed to survive this fragile lead-in, delivering growth for TBS in the 11 p.m. timeslot despite being critically panned. Therefore, one has to imagine O’Brien will do even better in this environment seeing as critics love him, he has a much larger (and racially diverse) fan base than Lopez and he’s just all around better than Lopez on practically every level.
A cable network will also provide O’Brien with a lot more leeway than the “Tonight Show” or Fox would. During his “Late Night” days, O’Brien gained a niche group of viewers with a unique brand of comedy that was at times a bit too risqu? to bring to an 11:35 slot on network television. On TBS, however, O’Brien will have more freedom to introduce controversial sketches similar to Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, Pimpbot 5000 and The Masturbating Bear. It’s unconventional material like this that helped O’Brien make a name for himself, and fans will certainly follow him to TBS if it means a return to a less restricted Coco.
Of course, there’s still a question of competition that would have come up regardless of where O’Brien ended up. Although his show will air more than 30 minutes before Leno and Letterman, he will still have to fight the two for guests. Up to this point, Lopez hasn’t been interviewing as many big name stars as Leno and Letterman on his show, but that could easily change with the far more bankable O’Brien. At the same time, O’Brien will also appeal to some of the same audience as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” which airs Monday through Thursday at 11 p.m. as well.
In the end, O’Brien’s move to TBS won’t turn that many viewers away from the far more mainstream shows hosted by Leno and Letterman. However, O’Brien’s decision is the right one for now. He will thrive in a far more hospitable cable network environment that will give him more freedom in material and from the high expectations and stress of competing with Leno and Letterman that would have come had he gone with a network like Fox. Basically, he can entertain his growing fan base, stay on air and be profitable to TBS even if he loses out in ratings to network late shows. It may not be the kind of thing he sticks to for more than 15 years like his “Late Show,” but it’s the right move for getting his foot back in the door of television.
Tony Lewis is a senior majoring in journalism and legal studies. Do you think Coco is loco for going to TBS? E-mail him at [email protected]