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Go Forth to Fox, Young Conan: Why the Tonight Show Was Never a Good Fit

Memo to Conan O'Brien: Go to Fox. He probably doesn't need us to tell him that; by the time you read this, he may already have decided to go, and is just crafting the deal points. As NBC re-embraces Jay Leno to its late-night bosom, Conan’s been portrayed — by the media, by quoted anonymous execs, and by himself, in his monologues — as the jilted lover, tossed over by a fickle network returning to its once-ousted ex. But Conan should be dancing a jig. Getting squeezed out from the Tonight Show is the best thing he, and his fans, could have hoped for. Because it finally frees him from the Curse of the Hallowed Gig.

Thanks to Johnny Carson, hosting the Tonight Show is the most hallowed gig in comedy. Since 1954, America has had eleven Presidents, but only seven permanent Tonight Show hosts: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Carson, Leno, Conan and, briefly, Jack Lescoulie and Al “Jazzbo” Collins, the Grover Cleveland and William McKinley of late night. Leno coveted the job. So did Letterman. So did Conan, and then he got it. Great, Conan: Now check it off your wish list and do something even better.

When Late Night With Conan O’Brien premiered in 1993, one of the most disappointing things about it was how much it looked like the Tonight Show: The desk. The monologue. The band. Even a sidekick, Andy Richter, who was a wink-wink version of Ed McMahon. Over time, Conan added his own demented touches, but it was clear that this mysterious enfant terrible, handpicked by Lorne Michaels, came not to overthrow the late-night establishment, but to ape it. His tenure amounted to one long on-the-job audition for the most cherished chair of all — the one he secured in 2004, when NBC promised him the Tonight Show in 2009.

But even if you love Conan, you must admit he’s not right for Tonight. His charm is in his awkward gawkiness (that hair!) and offbeat wit (Preparation H Raymond), not in a Carsonesque avuncular warmth. Think of it this way: Leno is a demonstrably good fit for the Tonight Show, and any job for which Jay Leno is a good fit must, by definition, be a bad fit for Conan. “Twitter nation” is apparently aghast at Conan’s mistreatment, but you know who doesn’t watch the Tonight Show? Twitter nation. You know who does? Old people. And old people like Leno.

So if Conan’s one victory here is to retain the name the “Tonight Show,” albeit at midnight, it won’t be a victory at all. Sure, this was once a hallowed gig — but so was coaching the Oakland Raiders. Hosting Late Night is also a hallowed gig, but only because Letterman built that show into something great. When he leaves The Late Show, people will fight for that job, too. Ditto The Daily Show when Jon Stewart leaves, and that desk wasn’t considered much of a catch back when Stewart took over from Craig Kilborn. Hallowed gigs are made, not inherited. And there’s a reason that everyone says, “Hey, did you watch Conan last night?” rather than, “Did you watch the Tonight Show?” People tune in for the host, not the backdrop.

Conan, you’ve already got the old Tonight Show on your résumé. Congrats. Now go start the next Tonight Show on Fox. Bring back the masturbating bear, Vomiting Kermit, and whatever other weird ideas you have kicking around your red-maned noggin, the kind that you could never unleash on Tonight’s geriatric following or its gilded legacy. Launch in the fall, and don’t worry about besting Leno or Letterman in the ratings. You won’t. But you can shrug off the heavy mantle of the Hallowed Gig and get busy reinventing the form. Call the new show simply Conan. And when you’re ready to retire, Carson style, you can sit back and watch as the next generation of young comedians engage in backstabbing and palace intrigue to land the hallowed Conan gig.

Conan, Jay, and Dave "joke" about the NBC shuffle Monday night [Vulture]

Photo: NBC