Back in his office, Conan felt suddenly enlivened. It was done, and now he had no more fear—or doubt. He could not be with these people anymore. He thought again of his obsession with landing The Tonight Show, the same one that had so tormented David Letterman (and apparently still did, almost 20 years later). Conan had put Liza and his two children through a lot, in the cause of NBC and the pursuit of Tonight. Now, in just a few days, NBC had forced him to go cold turkey, and as of that moment, he felt free of it. If NBC didn’t value the show, how could he? It seemed to Conan that Jay had been perfectly happy to see the show he had hosted for 17 years relegated to second-class status. Conan was not.
Wednesday night, a clearly liberated Conan bounced out and hit his monologue spot—free and on fire, again inspired by a huge outpouring of support from his studio audience:
“I’m trying very hard to stay positive here, and I want to tell you something. This is honest. Hosting The Tonight Show has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me. And I just want to say to the kids out there watching: you can do anything you want in life. Yeah, yeah—unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.”
At NBC, the joke represented the point of no return. All throughout the legal wrangling, even after the manifesto, Jeff Gaspin maintained a quiet wish that Conan would examine his options one more time and decide that staying at NBC still made the most sense.
After the joke, that dream vaporized.
Gaspin got a call from Jay about the joke. This one did not strike Jay as funny. He asked Gaspin, Why the fuck am I giving up a half-hour for this guy?
And Gaspin asked himself: How could these guys work back-to-back if Conan hates Jay? There was no longer any question about resolving this in a fashion that might keep Conan at NBC, as far as Gaspin was concerned. It had come down to how the matter would be settled, and Conan would go on his way.
I remember watching that episode and I thought that the joke was pretty pointed- but also totally fair. I'm surprised that NBC didn't pull the plug on Conan sooner, but from reading the piece, it sounds like the network really thought they could make it work. In any case, you should tune into Conan on Monday.