Conan O'Brien's TV Ban Ends On '60 Minutes'

Since Conan O'Brien left The Tonight Show in February, he's been contractually banned from television. That ended this weekend with an interview on CBS's 60 Minutes. As NPR entertainment blogger Linda Holmes explains, O'Brien is sticking to a strategy that's working.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

When Conan O'Brien left "The Tonight Show," he was contractually banned from television. Well, that ban ended this weekend with an interview on CBS' "60 Minutes." In it, O'Brien talked about his forced departure from NBC.

(Soundbite of TV show, "60 Minutes")

Mr. CONAN O'BRIEN (Former Host, "The Tonight Show"): If I had surrendered "The Tonight Show" and handed it over to somebody publicly and wished them well, I would not have come back six months later. But that's me. Everyone's got their own way of doing things.

SIEGEL: As NPR entertainment blogger Linda Holmes explains, O'Brien is sticking to a strategy that's working.

LINDA HOLMES: Conan O'Brien's contractual veil of silence was lifted Saturday. And his Sunday night appearance on "60 Minutes" continued one of television's most remarkable lemons-to-lemonade stories.

For a guy who lost "The Tonight Show" seven months after he got it, O'Brien has done just fine.

He got a lot of money from NBC when he left. He got boatloads of public sympathy. He's touring live and being greeted like Captain Sully landing on the Hudson. And in the fall, he'll be a highly paid host again on TBS.

The obvious question: How do you leave with a payout worth tens of millions of dollars, land a new show right away and still be an underdog folk hero to many of your fans?

For one thing, O'Brien gets sympathy by not asking for it. He insisted Sunday that he wasn't mistreated, as fans often tell him he was. I'm fine, he told Steve Kroft, it just didn't work out. For another, he balances rejecting victimhood with admitting that it hurts to lose your dream job, no matter how much money you take with you.

Million-dollar payouts may not be very relatable to fans, but a toxic work environment - just what he called it - where you feel unwelcome, that can happen to anybody.

O'Brien's smartest choice, though, is holding back - but just barely - about Jay Leno. He declined to answer a question about whether Leno had behaved honorably. But he did say that taking back the show so soon wasn't what he would have done. And he laughed out loud when reminded that Leno sees himself and O'Brien as similarly situated victims of network misdeeds.

Pointing out that Leno has the show they both wanted while he has his unemployment beard and a life on the road, O'Brien managed to sound self-deprecating while eviscerating Leno's argument.

Whether he means to or not, the guy has played the public relations game magnificently from the beginning, right from the moment he addressed his statement giving up "The Tonight Show" to people of Earth.

He's been funny but he's also sad. And when he temporarily lost television as an outlet, he packed his guitar and hit the road.

On his very last "Tonight Show," O'Brien begged his fans not to become cynical. He told them: Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get, but if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. Since then, he's explored Twitter, met his public in person and defied expectations by jumping to cable.

He sings about being fired, he grows out that beard, and he insists that he's all right. It just didn't work out. It would be cynical to see his rejection of cynicism and self-pity as a public relations gambit, but if they were one, he could hardly have hoped it would go any better.

SIEGEL: Linda Holmes is NPR's Pop Culture blogger. You can watch Conan O'Brien's entire "60 Minutes" interview at NPR's arts and entertainment blog Monkey See at npr.org.

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