LOS ANGELES — Late night TV host Conan O’Brien all but posted a farewell banner on this week’s “Tonight” shows as his exit negotiations with NBC neared their conclusion Wednesday.
In the late-night tradition of a star-studded goodbye, O’Brien’s guests Thursday include such big names as actor Robin Williams and singer Barry Manilow. Actor Tom Hanks was scheduled for Friday, as was comedian Will Ferrell — the first guest O’Brien welcomed when he started last June as “Tonight” host.
And then there was this joke from his monologue Wednesday: “Hi, I’m Conan O’Brien, and I’m just three days away from the biggest drinking binge in history.”
It was yet another indication that he’s bracing for the bitter end of his brief tenure at “Tonight,” less than eight months after taking over as host from Jay Leno. The show previously had been scheduled for reruns next week.
The red-headed comedian was negotiating with NBC for a severance package of more than $30 million, which would clear the way for Leno to return to late night. The proposed deal would allow O’Brien to work at another network as soon as this fall.
The announcement of an agreement was possible Thursday as the sides worked to resolve the final hurdle: compensation for O’Brien’s staff and crew of about 200 people.
O’Brien was said to be “dug in” on the issue out of concern for the workers, while NBC said this week that it had already agreed to pay “millions of dollars to compensate every one of them” and deemed it a public relations “ploy.”
NBC’s effort to keep both O’Brien and Leno at the network ran aground when Leno’s experimental prime-show show drew poor ratings and affiliate complaints that forced its cancellation. When NBC proposed moving Leno back to 11:35 p.m. EST (0435 GMT) with a half-hour show, O’Brien refused to host “Tonight” at 12:05 a.m. (0505 GMT).
O’Brien, after posting lacklustre numbers, has seen his viewership jump in recent days. His Monday night Nielsen Co. rating was up more than 60 per cent in total viewers over the previous fourth quarter average and up about 80 per cent among advertiser-favoured young adults.
Fox executives have expressed admiration for O’Brien but said they couldn’t discuss opportunities with him while he’s under contract to NBC.
O’Brien’s recent “Tonight” monologues have been notable for a barrage of jokes at the expense of NBC and Leno (“I just want to say to the kids out there watching: You can do anything you want in life, unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too,” was one crack).
His final shows may be far less celebratory than those of his long-serving predecessors but, like them, he’ll have top-notch company.
Johnny Carson’s final guests, after 30 years at “Tonight,” were Williams and singer Bette Midler, who appeared on his second-to-last broadcast. Carson hosted his final show in 1992 without guests.
When Leno left “Tonight” last May after 17 years, his final week of shows included Mel Gibson, Prince and Billy Crystal. Leno’s final guest on his last show was his then-successor, O’Brien.
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