And on the seventh day, Coco spoke.
Yes, we’d been waiting months-that-felt-like-years to hear from Conan O’Brien about his unplanned, unpleasant exit from NBC and The Tonight Show. Legally prohibited from criticizing the network — and from giving interviews until May 1 — he was left with little choice but to amuse himself (and us) on Twitter and on the stage with his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour.” Tonight’s 60 Minutes interview was his first real chance to share what was on his mind. At least as much as he legally could. (Non-disparagement agreements, what lurks behind you?)
So, how’d he do? He came across as likable and funny, yet didn’t rely on humor as deflection. He came across as sad, yet didn’t wallow in it. He came across as honest, but also tactful. He showed vulnerability at times — and, yes, hints of defensiveness — but did not resort to turning Jay Leno or NBC into a punching bag. He was also self-aware enough to share his predicament, but to also keep it in perspective. (After all, in the land of $32 million exit packages, is anyone truly getting screwed?) I liked and respected how O’Brien ended his last Tonight Show broadcast on a classy, gracious note — thanking the network for the times that were good and urging his fans not to give into cynicism — and I think he worked hard here to answer Steve Kroft’s to-the-point questions while seeking to uphold that philosophy.
Some highlights from the interview: O’Brien shared the endearing story of why he started growing his beard the day after he vacated his host chair. It was tiny rebellion — a follicular defiance. (“…that was my small victory, you know? Okay, so I lost The Tonight Show, but I’ll show them — I’ll stop shaving.”) He admitted that he fell into a big funk (“I got very depressed at times. It was like a marriage breaking up suddenly, violently, quickly, and I was just trying to figure out what happened”), and the “Legally Prohibited” tour helped to lift his spirits. Describing those painful musical-chairs conversations with NBC execs, O’Brien let us in a little: “It just felt like the tone went very quickly from, ‘Take your time, we understand this is a tough decision,’ to — [snaps fingers] you know, ‘Let’s go.’ And that probably helped me a little bit feel like, ‘You know what? This environment doesn’t feel right, and I’ve been with these people a long time… I really don’t like the way this is going.’ And when it started to get toxic and I started to feel that I’m not sure these people even really want me here. Let’s just — let’s just — I can’t do it.” Prodded by Kroft, he said he’s considered the possibility that the network may have even wanted him to leave (which seems unlikely for multiple reasons, including the hideous PR factor). In any case, “if they wanted me to leave, [gives a faux-peppy thumbs-up] it worked.” (EW reached out to NBC regarding O’Brien’s interview, but have yet to hear back.)
He did acknowledge his place in the pop-culture landscape right now as He Who Got Screwed. (By the way, did Steve Kroft make a bedroom-sex joke in his narration and use the term ‘screwed’? This ain’t my father’s 60 Minutes!) “I have so many people say this to me, ‘Hey partner, you got screwed,’” noted O’Brien. “I always tell them, “No, I didn’t. I didn’t get screwed. I’m– I’m fine. It just — it didn’t work out.’” Yet when Kroft mentioned that Leno said that he got screwed himself, we saw a bit of an edge behind O’Brien’s incredulous laughter. “How did he get screwed again? Explain that part to me. I’m sorry. Jay’s got The Tonight Show. I have a beard and an inflatable bat. And I’m touring city-to-city. Who can say who won and who lost? I’m laughing ’cause crying would be sad.” He clearly felt stung by Leno — who hasn’t contacted him since the shakeout — as evidenced by quotes like these: “I’m happy with my decision. I sleep well at night. And I, you know, hope he’s happy with his decision.” When Kroft poked at the wound, asking O’Brien if he thought Leno acted “honorably,” the interview’s most tense moment arrived. O’Brien let out a long breath before saying: “I don’t think I can answer that. I don’t think — I can just tell you maybe how I would have handled it. And I would do it differently… If I had surrendered The Tonight Show and handed it over to somebody publicly and wished them well, and then — I don’t — would not have come back six months later. But that’s me, you know. Everyone’s got their own, you know, way of doing things.”
After O’Brien insisted that he wishes NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker well — Zucker has also not reached out to O’Brien — Kroft reminded O’Brien that Zucker said that the viewers had essentially rejected him as host of The Tonight Show. “Can I take back what I just said?” quipped O’Brien, who objected to the idea that his show was a money-losing failure, and that six months was enough time to judge his chances for success. But if O’Brien carried an agenda into this interview, what he (smartly) wanted to drive home was the fact that he is alive and well: “It’s crucial to me that anyone seeing this take — they take anything away from this it’s I’m fine. I’m doing great… I don’t regret anything. I do believe, and this might be my Catholic upbringing, or Irish magical thinking, but I think things happen for a reason.” Told by Kroft that the Lutherans believed that, O’Brien whipped up a nice story-capping retort: “Okay, I believe that if I experience any joy in life, I’ll go to hell.”
While I wished we could have heard more about O’Brien’s new TBS show (How did the deal come about? How different does he want this series to be from his NBC shows?), the interview served its purpose well. (Nice to hear a few thoughts from his firmly supportive wife, Liza, as well.) Now, his galvanized fanbase can look forward to the page-turn that will take place in November. PopWatchers, how do you think Conan came off tonight? Do you want to hear more from him, or is your curiosity satisfied?