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O'Brien's NBC departure leaves bits behind

NBC owns rights to popular trademarked characters

The Masturbating Bear is dead.

As a deal nears for Conan O'Brien's exit from NBC, one thing is certain: The characters and recurring comedy bits O'Brien originated during his 16-plus years on "Late Night" and "The Tonight Show" will not follow the host when he leaves NBC.

The Peacock owns the intellectual property behind such popular O'Brien characters as Pimpbot 5000 and Conando, as well as recurring segments such as In the Year 3000 and Desk Driving. Sources involved in the settlement negotiations say NBC is keeping the copyrighted and trademarked elements of O'Brien's shows as part of the deal. That means the bits and characters will likely never be seen after O'Brien's "Tonight" ends its run Jan. 22.

While the vast majority of the characters O'Brien introduced are said to owned by NBC, it's unclear who controls Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the crass canine puppet that is perhaps O'Brien's most popular recurring bit. Triumph was originated by writer and longtime O'Brien pal Robert Smigel, whose reps declined to comment on whether Smigel or NBC owned rights to the character.

In 1993, David Letterman got into a dustup with NBC when he departed "Late Night" for CBS' "Late Show." NBC attorneys attempted to prevent Letterman from taking intellectual property originated on "Late Night" to the comic's new home. Letterman responded by dropping certain bits and renaming other recurring segments -- "Viewer Mail" became "CBS Mailbag" and frequent guest Larry "Bud" Melman began referring to himself by his real name, Calvert DeForest. Letterman mocked the dispute on his first "Late Show" when NBC anchor Tom Brokaw interrupted the monologue and stole cue cards in the name of securing NBC's intellectual property.

O'Brien, if he lands at another late-night show, might be in a tougher spot. Unlike comic personalities Letterman and Jay Leno, O'Brien began his career as a writer on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons," and his shows relied more heavily on the cleverly scripted bits and outrageous characters.

Losing those assets could hurt O'Brien as he looks for another home, although his "Tonight" had featured fewer of the characters than "Late Night" and the host -- who is considered one of the top comedy writers in the business -- may be looking for a fresh start. Sources close to him said he was not interested in taking his NBC characters with him.