Why Conan should not have done '60 Minutes'
Commentary: O'Brien came across more tragic than comic
"It's crucial to me that anyone ... take away anything from this, it's that I'm fine," Conan O'Brien says in his "60 Minutes" interview with Steve Kroft. "I'm doing great. I hope people still find me comedically absurd and ridiculous."
If there was one statement that encapsulated the awkward mishap that was O'Brien's post-contractual-TV-blackout coming-out party, it was this rather transparent attempt to contradict a portrait he probably didn't intend to offer on national TV. Because the O'Brien on display is clearly not "fine," but a deeply hurt individual licking his wounds for all to see.
Not since another silence-breaking media event -- the Tiger Woods "press" conference -- has a public figure backfired so thoroughly in his attempt to try to put the best face on a bad situation (and Conan ain't doing as badly as Tiger).
Desperate as O'Brien is to appear as if he's emerged unscathed from his bout with NBC and Jay Leno, he betrays himself at every turn. Time and again he talked about his departure in the agonized terms of someone suffering a fatal illness. Admitting to bouts with depression, he tells Kroft, "The amount of stuff that's happened in my life in the last year is ... it's going to take a long time to process it."
But O'Brien is doing great, right? Displaying zero of the antic charm that makes him such a great comic in late night, O'Brien openly wallowed in misery at a time when he should have been turning the page. The empty praise he gave his upcoming opportunity at TBS -- half-heartedly spouting some corporate boilerplate about the power of cable -- came in stark contrast to the envy he displayed losing his beloved "Tonight Show" throne to Leno.
Even scenes from his comedy tour that should have shown O'Brien employing success as the best revenge had a sad quality to them. Listening to the comedian perform songs recounting his struggle, I was reminded of Jason Segel's pathetic character in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," singing silly ditties to deal with the pain of getting dumped.
But the worst part of it all was that O'Brien picked the wrong show for making his return to TV. Watching O'Brien describe his "Tonight" exit with the gravity of a life-or-death ordeal seemed all the more bizarre in the context of "60 Minutes," which so often delivers stories of true struggle and pain.
Sorry, Conan, but the illegal immigrants I heard about in the newsmagazine's first segment who died trying to cross a canal to get into this country had it a tad worse than you.
Those who have followed every twist and turn of Conangate are all too aware of his plight. But when you sit down with "60 Minutes," you're not playing to your fan base; you're retelling your story to the kind of viewers who are more interested in world affairs than showbiz. You're talking to an audience that has the kind of perspective O'Brien so clearly lacks.
In O'Brien's head, the narrative of the past year seems reduced to: Big, bad NBC and Jay promised me "The Tonight Show" only to yank it out from under me. But to the uninitiated, a different, unintended narrative may have emerged from the interview: O'Brien's performance on "Tonight" was not delivering the return on investment NBC expected, NBC had to make the kind of tough call any business routinely makes, and now there's an oversensitive prima donna whining about losing a show he seems to treat like a sacred birthright despite the fact he got a $32 million golden parachute and a cozy new gig that will pay even more than that.
The interview's strangest exchange may have been when Kroft informed O'Brien that NBC stated that "Tonight" began losing money during his tenure, to which he replied thrice, "It's not possible," as if he were trying to will this annoying suggestion out of existence.
Is it really not empirically within reason that NBC had enough information after six months to know that he wasn't going to work out at 11:30 p.m.? And if it isn't, would O'Brien have viewers believe that NBC yanked him out of sheer spite or stupidity as opposed to some justifiable rationale?
And here's where "60 Minutes" didn't come off too great, either. Let's put aside Kroft's kid-glove treatment; that was to be expected. But it would have made sense at some juncture to have at least mentioned that an effort was made to get NBC's side of the story -- if there was any.
Instead, there were some jabs at NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker that made the newsmagazine look like a corporate tool. You could almost hear CBS Corp. CEO and longtime Zucker rival Leslie Moonves cackling into his jewel-becrusted goblet as he stroked a Persian cat purring on his armrest. A thank-you card from TBS chieftain Steve Koonin is tucked into his breastpocket.
Poor Conan. He's rationalized a career failure into some kind of grand injustice that's been perpetrated onto him rather than confront the embarrassment for what it is. In the process, he's becoming the very person he usually mocks, just another egocentric Hollywood type.
Give him some credit for gallantly abstaining from taking direct swipes at the people he so clearly resents for sealing his fate. But a little more restraint would have prevented him from projecting the wrong image, at the wrong time, on the wrong show.
You can reach Andrew Wallenstein on Twitter at @awallenstein
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