Amid all the furor about Jimmy Fallon bringing The Tonight Show to New York, the guy who's really gotta be feeling a lot of feelings is poor Conan O'Brien. Not only does this reopen the wounds of the terrible and bloody Late Night Wars of 2010, but it further drives home what a raw deal NBC handed him.
O'Brien never pulled any punches about wanting the Tonight Show gig. It was always in his sights and he was vocal about that. Thus when NBC asked him to jump through some hoops in order to make his dream a reality, he was happy to do so. The biggest requirement was that he pack up his entire life and move to Los Angeles, and that his crew do the same. The Tonight Show had been a Burbank production for forty years and NBC was not about to change that for Conan O'Brien. The move of course would not only affect his life and those of everyone around him, but it would affect the spirit of the show. A Los Angeles studio vibe is very different from a New York soundstage. Conan was prepared for that because he was changing shows, but there was a risk of losing something in the translation. But, again, it's what NBC required, so uproot he and his gang did, spouses and kids heading on a wagon train west. Of course we all know how that ended.
But now NBC is the one jumping through hoops, building Fallon a fancy new set in New York City, giving him the kind of respect O'Brien felt (justifiably, perhaps) that he deserved. This Fallon kid has been at this for, what, four years? Conan did Late Night for sixteen. What gives? What does Jimmy have that Conan didn't? The truth may be that NBC was never that into Conan, and he eventually suffered because of it. There's obviously some measure of truth in that; why else would they cruelly stick Leno on before him like they did? Something about Conan failed to inspire confidence in the network brass and eventually it did him in. Or, fine, this is simply a matter of different place, different time.
There's also the indignity of Leno's short return to Tonight. After all that, all that acrimony and speculation, the ashes of various bridges blanketing Hollywood, Leno comes back for a couple years and then he's pushed out and the whole thing is obsequiously handed over to Jimmy Fallon. In some ways Conan is the guy someone dated before they found the love of their life. Essentially, he never mattered. Or, uh, at least that's how I'd feel. Maybe he's fine with all this, maybe he's content with the TBS gig, where he still gets good guests and can do whatever the hell he wants. But I'd imagine that this news stings today, for a variety of reasons. All the what-ifs and how-comes rattling around, the injustice of all that power dumped in the lap of the goofy kid who laughs at his own jokes. NBC done did Conan wrong. There's no way around that.