The road to late night success has never been thought to be smooth or easy, and Conan O’Brien’s rise, fall, and rise again exemplifies this.
O’Brien was always one of the brightest and motivated: he was his high school’s valedictorian and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. He wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and after graduating moved to Los Angeles where he wrote for comedies and performed improv. In 1987 he joined the writing cast of Saturday Night Live and in 1991 he joined The Simpsons as a writer and a producer; Conan is generally regarded as having changed the tenor of The Simpsons.
When it was announced that David Letterman was leaving his 12.35 am Late Night for a newly created show (Late Show with David Letterman), Lorne Michaels selected Conan to first produce, then host the new Late Night. Taking over Late Night from the legendary and highly-respected David Letterman would’ve been a challenge for anyone, but because of the personalities (Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, David Letterman) and dollars involved, and because future of NBC’s late night dominance was for the first time uncertain, the scrutiny on Conan was particularly intense.
Late Night with Conan O’Brien premiered September 13, 1993 and was greeted immediately with negative reviews. Unsure of this new show, NBC refused to offer Conan’s Late Night a long-term contract. The unsteadiness and edge-of-cliff-possibility of its cancellation cannot be overemphasized: he was for a very long time, close to losing his show. Ultimately, Late Night with Conan O’Brien survived 16 years, ending its run strong in February 20, 2009, as Conan readied for his transition to The Tonight Show.
Unfortunately, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien didn’t end well for Conan or NBC. Conan’s Tonight Show premiered June 1, 2009 and ended January 22, 2010, after only 145 shows. At stake was the steady decline of Tonight Show viewership; the fear that Jay Leno, who was still a viable and sought-after host, would leave NBC; affiliates who didn’t think Conan’s brand of humor would work at 11:30 (and their reluctance to give it a chance); and Conan’s unwillingness to delay the start of The Tonight Show to 12:05 am so that NBC could insert a new show headlined by Jay Leno at 11:35 pm.
O’Brien now heads the eponymous Conan on TBS, which premiered November 8, 2010. Although not a ratings-buster, TBS extended his contract through November 2015, citing the show’s young demographics.
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