Conan on “60 Minutes”: Failing His Own High Standards

Conan O’Brien went on CBS’s “60 Minutes” this week, and managed to carefully trash NBC and Jay Leno without crossing the boundaries laid out in his agreement with NBC, which prohibited him from “disparaging” the network that treated him so abysmally and paid him 30 million dollars in the bargain. I sympathize with Conan. A “60 Minutes” softball interview (CBS is a competitor of NBC, remember, so it likes Conan, an NBC casualty and victim; “60 Minutes” only does tough interviews with people they don’t like) is good for Conan’s image, helps him publicize his national comedy tour and his new deal with TBS, and best of all, allows him to stick it to the people who did him dirt. This would be hard for anyone to resist, and obviously Conaa couldn’t. Still, it would have been better if he had.

O’Brien has demonstrated exemplary ethical instincts throughout the debacle that saw him bearing the whole brunt of NBC’s disastrous musical chairs strategy with its late night talk shows.  His “60 Minutes” interview, however, was only a demonstration of how smart and verbally adept he can be at tap-dancing around legal language. No, he didn’t disparage Leno or NBC—he just left no question that he thinks Jay is a weasel and that NBC torpedoed him because it was the simplest and cheapest way out of its own mistake. Asked if he thought Leno had behaved dishonorably, O’Brien answered, “If I had surrendered The Tonight Show and handed it over to somebody publicly and wished them well, I would not have come back six months later. But that’s me. Everyone’s got their own way of doing things.”  Translation:  “Jay’s way of doing things, for example, is to lie and double-cross colleagues when it fits his agenda.”

We learned from Conan that NBC’s claim that O’Brien’s tonight show was losing money was a lie, not because O’Brien actually said it was a lie (which would be disparagement), but because he said it was “impossible.” We learned that both Leno and NBC head Jeff Zucker are cowardly and graceless, not because O’Brien said so, which would be a violation of his promise, but because Conan answered a direct question from Steve Kroft by saying that neither of them had called him since he was ousted. Asked by interviewer  Kroft if he felt he was “screwed,” O’Brien said no—and then spent the entire interview looking and sounding as if he felt he had been screwed. He said, for example, that the NBC relationship turned “toxic”…poisonous. That means that he realized his bosses were no longer supporting him, as he had been assured that they would, but were undermining him. An employee who is being undermined by his employer is, by definition, screwed.

No question about it: Conan was screwed. But he made a magnanimous, inspiring exit from his show, and accepted a lot of money to let bygones be bygones, at least publicly. No matter how satisfying it must have been for him to let “60 Minutes” facilitate a public airing of his legitimate grievances against NBC and Leno that he could keep within the boundaries of his legal pledge, Conan has set high ethical standards for himself, a lot higher than common practice in his industry, where “getting even” is practically a religion. The only way he could have kept those standards, and also met the spirit as well as the letter of his promise to NBC, was not to do the interview at all.

You disappointed me, Coco.

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