The End Is Near for Conan O'Brien

I can't believe it's come to this.

As most people know by now, Conan O'Brien will be exiting The Tonight Show, likely after Friday's show. It's a bitter end to his truncated run on the show, and the real hell is how easily it could have been avoided if things had just played out the way people had said they would.

In 2004, NBC renewed Jay Leno's contract as host of Tonight for five more years and told him that after that time they'd like to move O'Brien out of his role as host of Late Night and into the prime Tonight chair in 2009. Leno wasn't too jazzed about the move, as he recalled to the audience of The Jay Leno Show on Monday, but he said he decided to retire to avoid the fiasco that went down in 1992 when he and David Letterman were gunning to replace Johnny Carson. Still, despite his apparent misgivings, Leno publicly supported the transition and wanted to spend his final five years as host having fun before passing the reins to O'Brien. And I know this because Leno said so. On TV:

The money quote of the whole thing is probably Leno saying, "When I took this show over, boy, there was a lot of animosity between me and Dave and 'Who's gonna get it?' and, quite frankly, a lot of good friendships were permanently damaged. And I don't want to see anybody ever have to go through that again, 'cause this show is like a dynasty: You hold it, and then you hand it off to the next person, and I don't want to see all the fighting and 'Who's better?' and nasty things back and forth in the press. So right now, here it is. Conan, it's yours. See you in five years, buddy."

And that should have been that. Jay's reference to the fracas that prompted David Letterman to leave NBC for CBS -- and which allowed Conan to take over Late Night when Letterman left -- should have been enough to provide for the future. But that didn't happen. Jay understandably didn't want to leave TV altogether, and NBC panicked and decided to keep him in the family rather than have him move to a competitor. Jay was installed at 10 p.m. ET five nights a week as a cost-cutting measure -- no more pesky pilots to greenlight or scripts to write -- and Conan's tenure as host of Tonight was tainted before it began. When Conan's version of the show debuted June 1, 2009, the dominoes were in place and waiting for a push.

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