The only way to describe the departure of late-night host Conan O'Brien from NBC's The Tonight Show is this: messy.
After seven months at the helm of the television show made legendary by Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, O'Brien was given the choice to either move the show to a half hour later to make room for the return of Jay Leno, whose 10 p.m. experiment was a flop, or to hit the road. O'Brien decided that, instead of cheapening the Tonight Show brand by moving it later, he'd leave--taking with him $33 million and the status as a beloved underdog.
Though barred from discussing the debacle until last May or returning to television until last fall, O'Brien parlayed his troubles into marketing gold. Within 24 hours of launching his Twitter feed in February, he had more than 300,000 followers. His two-month "The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" tour launched in April and sold out quickly. Also in April, Conan told the world that he had signed on to begin a new late-night show on TBS starting in November.
Whether his TBS show will capture his old audience remains to be seen, but O'Brien's antics off the small screen were masterful.
"The important thing is he came out of this debacle looking like a folk hero, with a larger stature," says Troy Patterson, television critic for Slate.com and film critic at Spin. "He got to be an underdog that played into his persona as a gawky, aw-shucks type of guy."
The marketing for O'Brien's TBS show was equally inspired: His new logo simply played on the shock of red hair that has been his trademark since his television debut along with the name Team Coco. An orange blimp emblazoned with the word CONAN even traveled the East Coast, checking into Foursquare locations to advertise the show. All that had most of the country repeating the mantra spread by one of Conan's grassroots supporters: "I'm with Coco."
Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.