Conan O'Brien's dream was to host the Tonight Show, which he called "the greatest television franchise of all time" -- but a guy is better off with the girl next door rather than the prom queen. The prom queen is usually a prude and the girl next door is the closet freak who lets you do anything you want with her.
"He can do whatever he wants to do here," Steve Koonin, the president of Turner Entertainment Networks, told Entertainment Weekly. "We had a great proposition. We have a great environment, we are young, we are a branded comedy network."
O'Brien's lead-in on TBS will be Family Guy, compared with network evening news at his old home. You know who watches network evening news? Old people. Old people who probably aren't into Conan O'Brien. O'Brien's fans wondered if his act would become more "refined" at 11:30, and he assured them it wouldn't. But the experiment is over, and if the success of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Chelsea Handler weren't evidence enough of a shifting late-night paradigm, this is it.
Because O'Brien's exit deal with NBC prevents him from going back on the air before the fall, there's some time to kill, but both TBS and O'Brien are using the time wisely. With a new slogan, "Coco is with TBS," the station has already reached out to O'Brien's hardcore fans. Meanwhile, O'Brien is out touring with the slogan "A night of music, comedy, hugging, and the occasional awkward silence." Hugging, apparently, is how he connects with his fans.
"There's a bit of sexual tension between you and I," O'Brien once told me during his audience warm-up before a taping of Late Night With Conan O'Brien. "Come here and give me a hug."
A high school senior skipping school a little more than a decade ago, I didn't expect to find myself in O'Brien's arms before a packed studio when they shuffled me and my friends into the second row. My head square against O'Brien's chest -- he's six-foot-four, and, well, I'm not -- we took turns man-patting each other's backs.
"There, that's better," he said. My face was bright red but I enjoyed playing along. "Now why don't you go hug that guy over there?" he said, pointing me towards a 50-something guy with slicked back hair and yellow teeth. I obliged, and from that moment forward I was no longer a young fan but also a part of the act, for a day at least.
He hasn't hugged all his fans and audience members, but throughout his 16-year run as host of Late Night and his abbreviated stint as the Tonight Show host, O'Brien has filled the space that divides a TV-star and the average viewer with humanness and relentless self-deprecation. Maybe he had to develop that sensibility; he's a giant red-headed comedian with a penchant for dancing poorly, and his monologues -- short and formulaic -- aren't his strength. O'Brien's greatest asset has always been his personality.
"I had a show," O'Brien wrote in his Twitter bio. "Then I had a different show. Now I have a Twitter account." Now he's got almost a million followers and there's billboards scattered across the U.S. featuring his 140-character updates. He never could have imagined trading in his Tonight Show digs for a Twitter account and a trip to cable television, but when the opportunity presented, maybe O'Brien realized that TBS is the best way to embrace his fans. Of course the shakeup is sweeter with a $45 million buyout and carte blanche to do anything short of defecate on a effigy of NBC CEO Jeff Zucker.
So what might the first week of O'Brien's show look like on TBS? I imagine a sketch where the Horny Manatee attempts to seduce the Masturbating Bear and Little Jay Leno gets run over by a truck. Something like that.
Follow Brett Smiley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/brettsmiley