Conan's O'Brien's $40 Million Muzzle

Posted by: Patricia O'Connell on January 19, 2010

It looks like Conan O’Brien isn’t getting a golden parachute, but a golden muzzle. Is it worth it? The (for now) Tonight Show host has gotten a lot of mileage—and improved ratings—out of poking fun at NBC, et al, over the mess about moving the show’s time slot.

And I admit watching Conan skewer his employers and colleague/competitor Jay Leno has been part of the great fun in watching Conan of late. But what will happen when he can’t do that anymore?

It looks like NBC will pay Conan O’Brien $40 million to walk away from The Tonight Show because of Conan’s refusal to move the time of the show to 12:05 am. One of the apparent stipulations of the deal with NBC is that Conan refrain from bad-mouthing the network (and I assume “the network” also means Jay Leno and Jeff Zucker, two favorite O’Brien targets of late). I know I haven’t been alone in being fascinated by this corporate drama/train wreck. And I think part of the reason we’ve enjoyed it so much is there’s been a certain vicarious thrill in watching Conan trash his employer so publicly (and with such biting but still funny humor).

Who hasn’t wanted, on some occasion, to do so? I’ve been pretty lucky in my career. For the most part, I’ve worked for people and companies that were good to me and I respected, and I’ve had lots of great colleagues (and when I didn’t, that was pre-Twitter). But everyone has wanted to stick it to their boss/company at some point, and rail about egregious unfairness, stupid decisions, how badly we’ve been treated, and undeserving colleagues. And for a while there, Conan was venting for all of us. It was fun while it lasted. …

What if Conan were to get $20 million from, say, Fox, and not have to take NBC’s deal along with its muzzle? (Yes, I know, most severance packages contain some proviso that you not trash the company giving you your walking papers. But most of us don’t get humiliated by our employers publicly, either.) Trashing NBC would get old after a while, and would make Conan seem bitter. But it would be fun to know that he just might be able to throw a zinger every so often, when the situation warrants.

So, what's the takeway for people who aren't managing networks or negotiating $40 million severance packages? Treat employees with dignity and fairness. Not an original insight, but still a useful one.

Reader Comments

Sam

January 19, 2010 4:29 PM

I don't see how any contract (beyond an 'Official Secrets Act') can prevent him from making jokes at the network's expense. It's an infringement on his right to freedom of speech.

Stacy

January 19, 2010 4:46 PM

I think the fact that he mentioned it on his show means this whole “Conan can’t bad mouth NBC” is either completely false or was misunderstood by the source. Since no deal is signed yet, he wouldn’t seem that Conan would be able to legal talk about anything in it on his show. He didn’t mention anything about NBC keeping his character because that’s is probably actually in the deal.

Brad

January 19, 2010 4:48 PM

It's not a violation of "free speech" if he signs a contract and is compensated for doing so. He took money with a condition attached to it. He can be sued if he violates that agreement.

Albert Finlayson

January 19, 2010 4:52 PM

Let's not forget his staff. Especially the ones who moved from NY to LA... what will they be able to do now?

Anonymous Coward

January 19, 2010 4:58 PM

Free speech ONLY PERTAINS TO THE GOVERNMENT, not private entities.

There are no free speech violations here.

If you sign a contract agreeing to not use certain speech, and you do use that speech, you have broken a contract. not a law.

The only recourse the other party has is to sue you for breach of contract.

BOO-HOO

January 19, 2010 4:59 PM

HEY SAM, IT'S NOT AN INFRIGEMENT ON HIS (CONANS) "RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF SPEECH" IF HE AGREES TO IT CONTRACTUALLY AS PART OF HIS SEVERENCE PACKAGE...BUT THE BOTTOM LINE IS WHO REALLY CARES?

BP

January 19, 2010 4:59 PM

This whole mess needs to be regrouped- Conan sounded it out: don't impact the oldest (and seemingly beloved) franchise on the tube by changing it to accomodate it's EX host. That is "EX" as in, been there, resigned, moved on to something that didn't work. Conan's shot is working, the tonight show is an institution. Leav it alone and figure something else to do with Leno. Obviously Leno has some proviso that allows him to be scooted back, but hasn't even he stated he didn't want to disrupt things and that included O'Brien's shot at the legendary slot? NBC should grow up and quit acting like GE's lapdog. It too existed before GE and has it's own legend of good and wrong decisions ("Star Trek" the orhginal series anybody?). Conan- hang in there!

Les

January 19, 2010 5:00 PM

Perhaps NBC is withholding some of the $40 million - releasing it slowly - so that it can deduct a certain amount for each ridicul or zinger against NBC or any of its employees - either through speech or song.

Sorry, Co-co. You are going to lose on this one. Who's going to remember you by next fall.

JJ

January 19, 2010 5:01 PM

He gave up those rights to bad mouthing NBC's situation when he signed his contract with NBC. His rights are held by the contract he knowingly agreed to and signed!

Dave

January 19, 2010 5:05 PM

Point taken, Sam, but if I work for Intel, IBM, or Microsoft and signed a contract saying I wouldn't reveal certain trade secrets, that too would restrict my freedom of speech and have nothing to do with government secrets (which I assume is what you meant with the OSA).

But telling a comic he can't make jokes is somehow just wrong. It's not like he's promoting any kind of illegal activity.

Bryan

January 19, 2010 5:05 PM

Its really simple, actually. The "Freedom of Speech" you are referring to is embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, which reads, in pertinent part "CONGRESS shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." [Emphasis added.] The Supreme Court, through a process informally called "reverse incorporation" has interpreted "Congress" in the first amendment to include the governments of the States and the Federal government. However, there must still be a "state actor," so private parties can infringe upon each another’s "free speech rights" all day long with impunity.

MidWestGal

January 19, 2010 5:16 PM

I think what is worse is that Conan's entire body of work from Late Night and The Tonight Show is being considered intellectual property and is being locked up never to see the light of day again, just like NBC did with Letterman's NBC shows. I guess the fear of the world seeing shows where witty, genius comedy was performed, versus the drivel Jay "Willy Loman" Leno has produced would only make more fans of Conan and Dave as even their reruns are far superior to the boredom of the Leno Tonight shows. Jay Leno even handpicked Stuttering John as his comedic announcer and that says volumes about his comedy sensibility. Jeff "Homer Simpson Head" Zucker and Dick "Gutless" Ebersol really have a fear of Dave and Conan, if they didn't why hide their genius from the world to see???

Patricia O'Connell

January 19, 2010 5:29 PM

Hi. this is Patricia O'Connell, the writer of the original post. All of you raise good points about free speech, etc. So, when do employers have the right to muzzle employees? For those of use without TV shows, there's Twitter, blogging, commenting, etc. Do you ever feel muzzled at work or by your employers?

steve b

January 19, 2010 5:36 PM

give me $4M and I would shut up for a year

tom

January 19, 2010 5:49 PM

Let's see. People are dying in Haiti, starving in the U.S., out of work around the world, and we have a country in the U.S. that has forgotten its soul.

So why all the attention to a bunch of coddled stars? We are all replaceable in the workforce, and we have no guarantee of continued employment past our last minute on the job. A $40M payout? It's insulting to people who really work at something, and it's a testimony to the fact that we are, in fact, stupid Americans.

Oh - we don't watch much TV. Too much of life going on...

Thumper

January 19, 2010 6:21 PM

Freedom of speech!?!? Have you people never heard of the Patriot Act? Freedom of speech has gone the way of the dinosaur. Take the money and run Conan. You're just another corporate prostitute and could do a whole lot worse than a few million to shut up and bend over.

TK in Texas

January 19, 2010 6:24 PM

With a payday of 40mil,who needs to work.Leave the country and enjoy your money and keep you Redheaded mouth closed.Or maybe go back to NY and join the Letterman clown family.

TK in Texas

January 19, 2010 6:24 PM

With a payday of 40mil,who needs to work.Leave the country and enjoy your money and keep you Redheaded mouth closed.Or maybe go back to NY and join the Letterman clown family.

Big Daddy

January 19, 2010 6:27 PM

Has everyone forgotten the man is getting 40 million to shut up. As far as his comedy goes he's been a joke from the beginning...and that means Late Night. It is some of the most idiotic unfunny humor I haqve ever witnessed. Bye bye Conan.

Derek

January 19, 2010 6:27 PM

Forget all the legal wranglings.....the bottom line is Leno said he was gonna leave and did so....he doesn't deserve the seat back. Conan IS funny and I believe the show would have found it's way. They (Dave, Jay, Jimmy, etc) all have eventually!!! Jay- YOU decided to leave so just DO THAT!!

Patricia O'Connell

January 19, 2010 6:42 PM

Derek, you raise a good point that we've all kind of overlooked. Even though Jay Leno says it was never his intent to drive Conan out of The Tonight Show, should he gracefully accept that his time has come--and gone? And is NBC committing a big management mistake in thinking what worked before will work again?

Adonijah

January 19, 2010 7:41 PM

Respect to Conan for sticking to principle. NBC is crazy for proposing to destroy an iconic show just to satisfy Leno, who isn't half as funny as Conan. You've got support in Barbados, Conando!

Pamzer

January 19, 2010 8:38 PM

Conan was never as funny as Jay, sillier maybe, but not funnier. Jay was asked to try a prime time show so that NBC could keep Conan from jumping to another network 5 years ago....NBC should have let him go and left Jay alone, where he beat Dave in the ratings for 12 years or something. Or maybe Jay should have said, "no, I want 40 million, or I'm gonna call you idiots every night until you boot me!"

Pamzer

January 19, 2010 8:38 PM

Conan was never as funny as Jay, sillier maybe, but not funnier. Jay was asked to try a prime time show so that NBC could keep Conan from jumping to another network 5 years ago....NBC should have let him go and left Jay alone, where he beat Dave in the ratings for 12 years or something. Or maybe Jay should have said, "no, I want 40 million, or I'm gonna call you idiots every night until you boot me!"

Pamzer

January 19, 2010 8:38 PM

Conan was never as funny as Jay, sillier maybe, but not funnier. Jay was asked to try a prime time show so that NBC could keep Conan from jumping to another network 5 years ago....NBC should have let him go and left Jay alone, where he beat Dave in the ratings for 12 years or something. Or maybe Jay should have said, "no, I want 40 million, or I'm gonna call you idiots every night until you boot me!"

Anna

January 19, 2010 9:35 PM

C'mon people!! Conan is a lot funnier than Jay Leno. Conan worked on The Simpsons between 1991-1993, which was the prime of The Simpsons. The Simpsons was a very innovative and groundbreaking show compared to all other animated shows at that time and Conan was a major part of that Don't forget that Leno and O'Brien have an entire staff of writers to come up with jokes for their shows and guests decide what they are going to talk about in the dressing room before and Conan and Leno know about the guest topics as well. Taking that in to consideration, Conan conducts a much better and funnier guest interview, which involves coming up with funny dialogue on the spot. Granted, Leno often has a great monologue, but you can attribute that to his staff.

Anna

January 19, 2010 9:35 PM

C'mon people!! Conan is a lot funnier than Jay Leno. Conan worked on The Simpsons between 1991-1993, which was the prime of The Simpsons. The Simpsons was a very innovative and groundbreaking show compared to all other animated shows at that time and Conan was a major part of that Don't forget that Leno and O'Brien have an entire staff of writers to come up with jokes for their shows and guests decide what they are going to talk about in the dressing room before and Conan and Leno know about the guest topics as well. Taking that in to consideration, Conan conducts a much better and funnier guest interview, which involves coming up with funny dialogue on the spot. Granted, Leno often has a great monologue, but you can attribute that to his staff.

Scott M.

January 20, 2010 12:38 AM

If NBC was so certain about keeping Conan around and taking over the Tonight Show, then why wouldn't they even give him a year to gain more viewers? He's been at 12:05 for 15 years, he needs a little time to gain viewers that have never seen him before and 7 months isn't enough time. Jay Leno started the show when there was no other programming preventing an audience from watching. And he isn't even funny. Anyone who is talking about contracts and clauses and all that crap don't know what they're talking about because they don't work for NBC or Conan. So if you have an argument and it involves Conan's contract, refrain from posting it because its making you look stupid.

gwanefrancheska

January 20, 2010 4:25 AM

Conan is certified funny host. I really like this host!!! I am a certified Team Conan!. I am your avid supporter. And even 'The Simpson'. Love it!

Alfred E. Neumann

January 20, 2010 7:18 AM

I would have loved to tell my old boss to stuff it and not to bother to take me out for lunch on my final day. However, I had not received my severance contract yet and had to keep quiet. I still have to keep quiet. The contract also stipulates I cannot even tell people a contract exists; an Orwellian construct since everyone severed is told in advance there will be one. I never thought there was price at which I would sell out on my principles until I saw my golden parachute.

Mack Dio

January 20, 2010 11:24 AM

Why are we paying this bouncing idiot drunk so much money when there are day laborers starving for a day's wages for breaking their backs. That is why we are headed down with this old boy network signing themselves huge paychecks for garbage!!

Mack Dio

January 20, 2010 11:24 AM

Why are we paying this bouncing idiot drunk so much money when there are day laborers starving for a day's wages for breaking their backs. That is why we are headed down with this old boy network signing themselves huge paychecks for garbage!!

muhr

January 20, 2010 11:52 AM

Conant O'Brien? Enough Already!

He will never be trusted again.

His "me" centered dogma is so useless , especially against the background of Haiti's crises and dealing with people dying under debris, thousands of childred orphaned, no water, no food, etc...

Please, His face makes me want to vomit. He's a whiner wienie lookin like a fool with his pants on the ground, tripping all over himself - waiting for someone to lean on.

GROW-UP Conant!

Now!

Manny

January 20, 2010 12:13 PM

O'Brien cannot carry the Tonight Show and is as funny as a wood enema.

Matt

January 20, 2010 6:06 PM

Thanks Brad -
Free Speech are for those of use who do not produce a work product owned by someone else.
Not only will Conan have to not speak unkindly of NBC, but we he will also need to come up with material. All content, characters etc. are property of NBC.

No talk about the ratings for both shows, while the situation was not handled in the best manner. Conan needed to realize that while Jay's show was tanking The Tonight had been drifting to the bottom of the ratings maybe even faster than Jay.

Rocky

January 20, 2010 9:31 PM

If you think a $40 million payoff is too much, cancel your cable and hit the Hollywood crowd where it hurts.

Rocky

January 20, 2010 9:33 PM

If you think a $40 million payoff is too much, cancel your cable and hit the Hollywood crowd where it hurts.

Kiki

January 25, 2010 3:38 AM

You should get the Tonight Show gig, Patricia and turn everything on its head. After all, you have sidekick Ed McMahon's dimensions, so you could grab the desk while Smithers does the sidekick routine and gushes about how wonderful you are.

Smithers is very good at that.

OXYGEN

March 28, 2010 9:15 AM

O'Brien cannot carry the Tonight Show and is as funny as a wood enema.

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