At Long Last, Conan's NBC Exit Interview
Why didn’t Steve Kroft ask Conan O’Brien about George Lopez? Yes, I know Lopez - a congenial team player, by all accounts - has said that he is completely on-aboard with O’Brien’s upcoming TBS show pushing Lopez Tonight to midnight. But it’s still a relevant question, given that O’Brien negotiated a lucrative $30 million-plus exit agreement with NBC rather than have The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien move to 12:05 a.m.
The George-is-cool-with-getting-shunted-to-midnight spin also smacks of, well, spin. And Kroft works for one of the last television news programs that actually takes its interview subjects to task; you’d think he’d ask.
So Kroft’s interview with O’Brien, promoted since the middle of last week, felt like the exit interview O’Brien never got to have with the executives at NBC who concluded that Jay Leno’s milquetoast jokes appealed better to flyover-state viewers than O’Brien’s absurdist, esoteric comedy.
For O’Brien, the whole episode still smarts.
“I went through some stuff. And I got very depressed at times. It was like a marriage breaking up suddenly, violently, quickly,” he said. “And I was just trying to figure out what happened.”
But his Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television comedy tour has been therapeutic.
“When we started putting this tour together, I started to feel better almost immediately,” O’Brien told Kroft. “And there is almost no better antidote to what I’ve just been through than to do this every night.”
The 60 Minutes segment also included the 2009 video of Jay Leno toeing the company line and welcoming O’Brien to The Tonight Show.
“I just want to say: I couldn’t be happier - you were the only choice - you were the perfect choice - you have been an absolute gentleman in private and in the press,” Leno said to O’Brien.
Since Leno was not interviewed for the 60 Minutes piece, Kroft tried to channel him, saying: “…Jay Leno thinks you got screwed. Jay Leno thinks he got screwed.”
“How did he get screwed again? Explain that part to me,” said O’Brien laughing. “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 because crying would be sad.”
The only time during the course of the interview that O’Brien seemed to visibly bristle was when Kroft confronted him with NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker’s assertions that O’Brien’s Tonight Show was losing money. O’Brien was taking a sip from his water during the exchange.
“I don’t see how that’s, I honestly don’t see how that’s possible,” he said, holding his water glass aloft. “It’s really not possible. It isn’t possible.”
O’Brien told Korft he has not heard from Leno or Zucker in the wake of the late-night debacle, which is not terribly surprising given the rancor that engulfed the situation. But O’Brien basically grew up at NBC. And he went to Harvard with Zucker. And at one point he confessed, “At some point I’m sure I’m going to bump into these people. And, you know, I’m not sure we’re going to have our arms around each other and drinking beer and singing old Irish fight songs. But, you know, this is going to sound crazy. I do wish these people well.”
Kroft reminded him that Zucker said publicly that “viewers voted” with their remotes - and largely rejected O’Brien.
“Can I take back what I just said,” asked O’Brien.