THR Cover: Conan O'Brien: End of the Pity Party

8:29 AM PST 05/23/2012 by Stacey Wilson
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Joe Pugliese

Thrown to the wilds of basic cable (and its teensy ratings) after his NBC debacle, the late-night comedian has emerged with his own postmodern TV model: a digital empire, his company's own shows and a young audience TBS hopes will follow him anywhere. As for his years of roller-coaster emotions? "I have no regrets about any of it."

By 4:45 p.m., the actor, in full Burgundian polyblend splendor, made an entrance before O'Brien's audience and proclaimed "to everyone here in the Americas, to our friends in Spain, Turkey and the U.K. -- including England" that there would be an Anchorman sequel.

The bit resonated not only within the studio and for viewers but also generated 3 million Internet views within 24 hours on 700 unique sites. "Conan's show had the perfect vibe for that kind of announcement," says Ferrell. "We were really happy for him to reap the benefits."

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Says O'Brien: "What we are trying to do is a mosaic; you can't really see the whole picture until you back up. At NBC, we were a small comedy club on a cruise ship. At TBS, we're masters of our own pirate ship. It's about so much more than who watches the show at 11 p.m. Who watches it at 1 a.m.? Who watches the clip online the next day? Who sees the ad with that clip? This is where it's all going, so let's get ahead of it rather than pretend it's still about America gathering around the TV to watch Roots or Ed Sullivan. That simply isn't the case anymore."

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It's a late-April afternoon, and O'Brien is in deep in rehearsal mode on Warner Bros.' Stage 14 in Burbank -- the same place where classic movies such as Casablanca and Ghostbusters filmed and only 2,112 feet from the set where Leno is preparing for The Tonight Show.

A dozen college interns, the show's de facto focus group, watch as O'Brien, relaxed in a striped navy hoodie and jeans, plays riffs from The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" on an electric guitar. Squeezed together on the small guest couch are O'Brien's longtime producer Jeff Ross, always in a suit jacket, the most businesslike and soft-spoken of the group; head writer Mike Sweeney, a white-haired but still youthful-looking former attorney whose jeans-and-sneakers affect is less lawyer-producer than high school math teacher; producer Tracy King, a self-described geek and gamer who started on Late Night; and original sidekick Andy Richter, not yet dressed for airtime in a white T-shirt and jeans. While they review notes for tonight's show -- with guests Kathy Griffin and Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock (the all-redhead lineup purely a coincidence) -- O'Brien tests a bluesy guitar sequence for Jimmy Vivino, the goateed leader of the show's Basic Cable Band.

At 2 p.m., still strapped with his ax, the host settles at his large wooden desk to run through the introduction to Conan's regular Monday segment "Fan Correktions," wherein nerdy YouTubers try, but always fail, to catch O'Brien in an error from an earlier episode.

Tonight, O'Brien is responding to an Ithaca college student who points out that the upcoming Batman sequel is The Dark Knight Rises -- not Rising. "Sorry," says O'Brien, from his desk. "I was actually referencing The Dark Knight Rising, the adult film based on The Dark Knight Rises." The lights dim, and a video clip appears on the monitors featuring three costumed Conan writers mimicking a superhero three-way. The bit -- a perfect example of the type of comedy that alienated Tonight's older, mainstream audience -- kills. The interns explode with laughter, and O'Brien, quite serious until now, chuckles.

"After our first TBS meeting, when the Fox deal was falling apart [O'Brien had been negotiating with Fox], I remember Conan turning to me and saying, 'I want to do something different.' And it has been," says Ross. "These TBS guys are entrepreneurial; they want to grow the network, they promote the shit out of it, and it's a stable place. A completely different vibe."

Adds Michael Wright, president and head of programming at TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies: "An executive's job is not to tell an artist how to make his show. My first note to Conan was, 'Do the show as if no one was looking over your shoulder because, oh yeah, there is actually no one looking over your shoulder.' "

A "lifelong fan" of O'Brien's, Wright says he was heartened when he met with O'Brien in late March 2010 and discovered "he was exactly the guy I'd been watching all those years." Although the network already had George Lopez on in late-night (Lopez would be canceled in August 2011), Wright felt that O'Brien could be the embodiment of what he wanted TBS to become. " 'Yes, this is the voice,' " Wright recalls thinking.

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Back at Prosecco, O'Brien orders another Pinot. "I'm going to need it to talk about NBC. Also, do you have any black-tar heroin?"

The plan seemed simple enough. In 2004, NBC announced that O'Brien would inherit the Tonight mantle from Leno, who, in 1992, had assumed the throne from Johnny Carson. What no one knew then was that Leno would not retire quietly. Instead, not long before O'Brien made the move to Tonight, it was announced that Leno would fill a new primetime spot at 10 p.m. Seven months into O'Brien's tenure, Tonight's ratings were poor, with much of the blame going to a lame lead-in by Leno (others blamed O'Brien's less-than-broad style of humor). But instead of canceling Leno, NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker offered a murky solution: Move O'Brien's Tonight to 12:05 a.m., and slide Leno into an awkward 30-minute slot at 11:35 p.m.

Jeff Gaspin, then chairman of NBC Universal Television -- on the brink of acquisition by its now-parent company, Comcast -- announced the decision Jan. 10, 2010; two days later, O'Brien issued the statement that would essentially dissolve his 17-year relationship with the network that had first taken a chance on him: "I sincerely believe that delaying The Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn't The Tonight Show."

On Jan. 21, the network announced that O'Brien had accepted a deal (that reported $30 million) to walk away from Tonight; Leno would be reinstated as host. A day later, flanked by celebrity supporters such as Tom Hanks, Neil Young, Steve Carell and Ferrell, O'Brien ended his Tonight run. The conflict played out largely with the "cool kids" siding with O'Brien and Leno vilified (albeit temporarily).

O'Brien's college buddy and longtime friend Greg Daniels, with whom he worked on The Harvard Lampoon and later on The Simpsons, admits he initially thought O'Brien should "swallow the bad treatment and stay at NBC." Then, says the co-creator of Parks and Recreation who also adapted The Office for American audiences, "I felt really happy for him because I knew he was betting on himself. It was a happy ending to the whole Tonight Show mess."

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