Is George Lopez really 'LoCo' for Conan?

TBS host says he 'graciously' agreed to move show

In this latest contre-temps in the Conan chronicles, George Lopez comes across as either a mensch or a schlemiel.

Who wouldn't have wanted to be in on a wiretap when TBS president Steve Koonin called the comedian last week and said, "George, I need a favor." Especially considering that Lopez, like every comedian several months ago, had a field day ribbing NBC and dissing Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno during the kerfuffle at the Peacock.

At the time, Lopez, with more good-natured gibes than, say, David Letterman's pointed zingers, referred to NBC as the Nobody Backs Conan network and suggested that "ain't nobody watching" the carrot-top anyway. Who would have thought, I remember him saying, that "a Mexican talk-show host would have the most job security in town."

Unless we're missing something -- and in Hollywood there probably is a tat for every tit -- within just a couple of days late last week, Lopez "graciously" submitted to moving his show from the coveted 11 p.m. slot to midnight to accommodate the cabler in luring O'Brien back to late-night.

When a similar switcheroo -- and this has to rank as one of the clumsiest screw-ups at a network in years -- went awry at NBC, O'Brien walked away with $40-odd million and Leno took the heat for being a patsy or a yes-man.

Lopez even purportedly picked up his own phone to call O'Brien last Wednesday and again Sunday night to help entice him into the fold. Surely that is going beyond the call of duty for a rival talent.

As for knowing how to structure and close a deal, hats have to go off to Koonin as well for snagging O'Brien via an ownership stake in his new venture as well as a healthy payday.

Did Lopez get a similar kind of deal or an assurance of such? Stay tuned.

While O'Brien did his usual self-deprecating shtick Monday night during his comedy-tour debut in Eugene, Ore., joking about his new gig, Lopez might have protested too much Monday during his "Lopez Tonight" monologue. He told his audience he is "100% on board with this move" and that he is welcoming Conan into the fold with his "deep loving embrace." From audience reaction, it wasn't clear whether they sensed a hint of irony in the riff. "Deep loving embraces" in Tinseltown generally translates as "deep pockets were turned inside out."

Lopez went on to say that now everyone can go from "I'm with Coco" to "Everybody can go LoCo," presumably in watching the back-to-back "next generation of late-night stars" on TBS.

After the twists and turns of the Leno-O'Brien saga, it's hard not to be suspicious that a deal to secure O'Brien and displace Lopez could have been worked out so smoothly.

Still, quickly it did come together, and whatever the payouts to make it happen, TBS and cable as a whole have scored another goal in getting a big-name talent to commit to their game. And stealing him right from under the nose of Fox.

Not that I think Fox will lament for long. Aside from a little egg on its face, the network is having a great year so far ratingswise, and late-night -- which it has stumbled at several times -- simply never has been the company's highest priority. Keeping affiliate stations happy is much more important, and from the get-go it was going to be sticky business undoing lucrative rerun deals nationwide to shoehorn O'Brien into the mix. I'm betting there's more a sigh of relief among the hierarchy in Century City than there is a wringing of hands.

As for TBS, rack this up as a coup for a channel whose niche is getting funnier and more defined by the month.

If O'Brien can do something zany, smart and engaging (and distinguish his tone and approach from that of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as well as Leno and Letterman), the hire will be one more feather in the cap of the cable biz.

But it might come at a price.

After complaining for decades that the media is only ever obsessed with three (and now four) broadcast networks, cable might start getting the attention it long has craved. The deconstruction of late-night comedy and the cablers that are heavy into it might get even fiercer come November.
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