Fans line up as Conan O'Brien makes $45 million exit

Conan O'Brien tapes his last 'Tonight Show' Friday after settling on a $45 million severance package from NBC. But the surge in support – and ratings – for the red-headed comedian suggests that broadcast television is out of touch with public tastes in comedy, say media analysts.

Paul Drinkwater/NBC/AP
Conan O'Brien.

Cindy and Todd Weir of La Jolla, Calif., are hoping to witness a piece of TV history live.

On a two-day visit to the Los Angeles area, they are scoping out the corner of James Stewart Ave. and Lankershim Blvd., where crowds gather every morning to get free tickets to the “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien."

“This is Conan’s last show, and we wanna be there,” says Mr. Weir, as he tries to get a tip from the security guard on the best time to arrive to get a ticket for the taping of Mr. O’Brien’s final show Thursday.

Now that O’Brien’s highly public divorce from NBC is final – he will give “The Tonight Show” back to Jay Leno for a reported $45 million severance package – are there any lessons here for the future of comedy on television?

Here’s one: “People care about what comedians are saying,” says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for the Study of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Which is why, even though this is juicy soap opera, it is also an important struggle over who will be on the air. Comedians have taken on an important role in highlighting the topics the nation focuses on, as well as the tone of the cultural discourse.”

Yahoo! reports double the number of online searches for Conan O’Brien in the past week. Tellingly, the searches hailed nearly equally from coastal cities such as Los Angeles and New York and midwest locales such as Indianapolis.

But another trend emerging from this fracas is that fans are choosing the comedians who most closely represents their worldview, says Tom Meyer of Davie-Brown Entertainment in Los Angeles.

“People used to just watch whatever was on in the late night hour, often simply leaving the set on from whatever newscast they tuned into,” he says. But now, he says, “they are paying attention to the attitude and the world view of their favorite comedians and choosing them based on whom they feel most closely reflects the way they see the world.”

O’Brien’s devoted following may have played an important role in the NBC’s desire to keep the red-haired comic off the air as long as possible. He will exit “The Tonight Show” seat Friday evening, and NBC will reportedly air re-runs of the Tonight Show for the next two weeks. According to reports, O’Brien won’t get be on air on any other channel until September.

NBC’s decision to return Mr. Leno to the 11:35 p.m. slot shows that broadcast television is behind the curve on where comedy is headed, says Michael Ray Smith, a professor of communications studies at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C.

“[NBC’s Jeff] Zucker represents the twilight of the Boomer generation who evaluates humor from his perspective and assumes by extension that the rest of America prefers an older brand of humor. Jay Leno is to Johnny Carson what Classic Coke is to regular Coke, but Conan represents the edgier style of a midtown mugger who seems to attack rather than attract older viewers,” Mr. Smith says in an e-mail, adding, “The lesson here is that networks will always default to the act that offends the fewest viewers while keeping sponsors paying attention and paying the bills.”

As the strong ratings for Conan’s show this week demonstrate, adds Barry Katz, president of talent management at New Wave Entertainment, “when comedy is hard hitting and cutting edge, people will tune in. Conan is letting it all hang out because he has nothing to lose. That’s the kind of comedy people want to watch.”


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