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Alas, poor Conan, NBC didn't do right by you

Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times (MCT)

People of Earth:

We come here not to bury Conan O'Brien, but to praise the pasty-skinned, flame-haired comedian, who unfairly became the odd man out in NBC's bloody late-night mess.

Friday night, Conan will end his brief reign as host of "The Tonight Show" and nab a $45 million check for simply walking away.

It sounds like a super-sweet deal (when was the last time you received millions of dollars for taking a walk?). But we can't help but feel that Conan is a victim here. And we can't resist bemoaning that his vast talents ultimately went unappreciated by the masses and by a network that has been left a shambles.

Some will say that Conan wasn't right for the gig in the first place — that Jay Leno's return to "The Tonight Show" helm March 1 restores the natural late-night order. Leno, after all, was beating CBS' David Letterman like a rag doll when he had the job. In the seven months since, Conan lost that ratings cushion.

Conan's critics will insist that he was plagued by a bad case of the "toos." He was just too goofy, too obnoxious, too edgy, too immature, too smart, too East Coast, too young and too tall to sit in the seat once occupied by legendary Johnny Carson.

We'll concede, Conan's an acquired taste. But truth be told, he's funnier than Leno. Way funnier. Eventually, America would have figured that out. And eventually, viewers would have welcomed him into their family.

But NBC never gave Conan time to grow into the job as it did with former hosts, including Leno. People forget that Leno also struggled early in his first "Tonight Show" run and that there was anxious talk among NBC execs about replacing him with Letterman. But they stuck by him.

Not only did NBC fail to exhibit the same kind of patience with Conan, it also undermined him by plopping Leno at 10 p.m. EST. Think about that: You wait years to assume your dream job as team captain only to discover that the old guy refuses to leave the locker room.

And when Leno produced rancid ratings in prime time, it meant weaker lead-in audiences for the local newscasts at 11, which, in turn, meant weaker lead-in audiences for Conan. The proverbial deck was stacked against this guy from the start.

Such a shame. Conan, who was educated at Harvard and wrote for "The Simpsons," was the perfect antidote for those of us who had grown tired of Leno's genial, middlebrow humor. We loved his offbeat characters, his zany on-location skits, his cleverness and subversiveness. And we loved how he wasn't afraid to make fun of himself.

Oh, what could have been.

But now what? Apparently, his payout deal requires Conan to disappear for a while. But he can return to late night as early as fall, if another network — possibly Fox — is willing to give him a job.

Here's hoping they will. And here's hoping Conan winds up making the bigwigs at NBC look even more foolish than they currently do.

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