I’ve been enjoying the CNN series “The Story Of Late Night.” It would be impossible over six hours to cover every host and show that ever aired in late night, particularly the ones who failed (in some instances, spectacularly). Thus, there was only a five-second mention of Chevy Chase’s flop and nothing about Magic Johnson’s bomb nor Pat Sajak’s nor Alan Thicke’s nor “The Wilton-North Report.”
Instead, CNN’s series has focused on the bigger stories, such as last night’s spotlight on the end of the Johnny Carson era and the ensuing David Letterman-Jay Leno battles. It also covered how Conan O’Brien succeeded Letterman on NBC’s “Late Night” after the latter announced he was defecting to CBS to compete with Leno’s “Tonight Show.”
As it happens, I was the first broadcaster anywhere to announce that O’Brien would get the job. Here’s how it happened.
Lorne Michaels, who had been given the responsibility to executive produce the show, thought Conan — who had been a writer on “SNL” before moving on to “The Simpsons” — would be a good choice for producer. But Conan didn’t want that job. He wanted to be the host, despite having exactly zero experience. Nonetheless, Michaels arranged for Conan to audition for the job by hosting a mock talk-show episode on the “Tonight Show” set. The show was never intended to air, but was watched closely via satellite by Michaels and other NBC big shots in New York and Los Angeles. The only people in the audience were other “Simpsons” writers and Conan’s close friend, Lisa Kudrow, who had not yet become Phoebe on “Friends.”
Wearing a wrinkled linen jacket he’d pulled out of the trunk of his car, Conan did a decent job with the monologue, and then had pretty good rapport with Mimi Rogers and Jason Alexander, who had gamely agreed to be his guests. Michaels and others at NBC were impressed, and within a couple of days had decided O’Brien was the heir apparent.
Meanwhile, my friend Mark Evanier had heard about the audition from someone he knew who had been in the studio that night and gotten the word that Conan was going to be the choice. Mark posted this juicy little item on the Broadcast Professional Forum of CompuServe, an online service that preceded AOL, MSN, Facebook, Twitter, and Google. I had been on CompuServe for several years, and Mark and I had exchanged emails regarding various matters. When I saw what he’d written about Conan, I sent him a query about how solid the story was. He replied that he’d heard it from insiders in Burbank. I asked his permission to report the information on the air, and he gave me the go-ahead.
The next morning, I did exactly that on my DC-101/Washington show, promoting it as a big exclusive (“At 7:20 this morning, I’ll tell you the name of the guy that’s going to replace David Letterman!!”). Neither I nor the others in my ensemble (Dave, Victoria, and Teri) had ever heard of O’Brien, so we had some fun with the story as I’d heard it from Mark, playing it up as fact, not rumor. I then repeated the details several more times over the course of the next couple of hours.
Fifteen minutes after I got off the air, the phone rang in my office. It was Arch Campbell, the entertainment reporter for WRC-TV-4, the local NBC owned-and-operated station. He hadn’t heard the announcement (thanks for listening, Arch!), but someone in the newsroom had told him what I’d said and he wanted to know if this was fact or fiction. When I told him it was real as far as I was concerned, he told me to hang around for a half-hour so he could get a cameraman and drive to the radio station. I had known Arch for several years by this point, and I knew that the excitement in his voice meant he was going to make a big deal out of the story.
When he got there, I repeated the narrative, this time on camera. Arch thanked me, saying this might be the lead on WRC’s 6pm #1-rated newscast. It was. Around 6:45pm, Arch called me at home to say that NBC was furious: “Paul, you not only scooped the network on their own story, you pissed them off, too!”
The network’s PR department had given Arch the runaround when he’d called that morning to confirm what I had said Mark told me, but even though he and I had already reported it, NBC wouldn’t go public with the news. Other outlets picked up my story, but since the folks at 30 Rock kept mum, the gossip only lasted a day or two. I, of course, kept fanning the flames and making fun of NBC.
Finally, almost two weeks later, NBC made the official announcement on April 26, 1993. Leno had Conan as a guest that night to introduce him to the world. O’Brien debuted as the host of “Late Night” on September 13, 1993, looking nervous as hell, but with an underlying confidence. Though many thought his days were numbered from the get-go, he kept that gig until 2009. That’s when he was promoted to replace Leno as host of “The Tonight Show,” only to be fired seven months and replaced by Leno. Conan then started a new hour-long show at TBS, which he eventually cut back to a half-hour. Now, 28 years after his big audition, that’s coming to an end as Conan winds down his career as a late night host.
Do I know who’s going to replace Conan at TBS? I have a feeling it will be more reruns of “The Big Bang Theory.” I keep trying to log into my CompuServe account to see what the scuttlebutt is, but even my pal Mark doesn’t have the answer.