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'Late Night' Banking on a Dark Horse : NBC sees comedian Conan O'Brien as the voice of a new generation, just as it did with David Letterman 11 years ago.

April 28, 1993|RICK DU BROW

"Nobody knows this guy," said comedian Jay Leno.

And on Tuesday, NBC started delivering the formal gospel on why a little-known writer-comedian, Conan O'Brien, 30, has been chosen to replace David Letterman as the host of the network's coveted "Late Night" series late this summer.

Letterman quit NBC in January to go to CBS, where his series will debut in August.

Leno introduced O'Brien to America following his monologue on "The Tonight Show" Monday.

"It's something I wanted to do all my life," O'Brien said. (He was not granting interviews on Tuesday, NBC said.)

O'Brien, a native of Brookline, Mass., is actually well known in comedy circles and has worked on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons." But since he's a stranger to the public, NBC and Leno used "Tonight" to present him.

Leno, who beat out Letterman for the "Tonight" job--which prompted Letterman to move to CBS--said on his Monday show that he had "an exciting piece of news."

"You know," he said, "our friend David Letterman (is) leaving the network, going someplace else. And we have to fill the 12:30 spot. And they have had an exhaustive search throughout the country, and we found a gentleman who's just signed a contract a couple of hours ago."

After mentioning O'Brien's credits on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons" and noting that "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels will also be producing the new show, Leno told the audience: "Nobody knows this guy. Nobody's seen him. I thought you might want to say hello to him . . . Conan O'Brien. Come on out here."

O'Brien, wearing blue jeans, a blue button-down shirt, sport jacket and tie, said: "I found out about it eight hours ago. I was, like, eating a big sandwich and they called me and said I had this job. . . . And I'm thrilled."


Recalling the controversy after he was chosen to succeed Johnny Carson on "Tonight," Leno cracked: "You know, Dave Letterman is a legend here at NBC. And if there's anything that's fun to do, it's replacing legends at NBC."

The host also said he was excited because he'll be able "to see somebody else's name in the paper all the time."

O'Brien said getting the job was "a huge shock for me. We're going to do a funny show. . . . We're going to have a blast."

NBC confirmed Tuesday that O'Brien got the job after Garry Shandling turned it down. Although Michaels had been behind O'Brien all the way, the network had hoped to sign the better-known Shandling, star of HBO's comedy series "The Larry Sanders Show," which spoofs late-night TV celebrity talk shows.

"After Lorne came forward with his candidate," said NBC entertainment chief Don Ohlmeyer, the network felt it still should leave "no stone unturned" in searching for a replacement for Letterman.

"Obviously," Ohlmeyer said, "going out with somebody who's not a household name makes it more difficult to launch." NBC's affiliate stations and advertisers would be dealing with "an unknown quantity," he said.

"We entered into discussions with Garry Shandling's representatives that lasted several weeks," Ohlmeyer said, "and yesterday morning (Monday) Garry called and withdrew his name from consideration."

Ohlmeyer said that Shandling "would have been an interesting choice," but added that O'Brien gives NBC a chance to do in the "Late Night" time slot what Letterman, now 46, did 11 years ago: "When David first appeared, he was the voice of a new generation following the Johnny Carson generation, the first of the baby-boomer voices. And we think Conan is the voice of the next generation."

Still, NBC, which wanted to have the "Late Night" job filled before its affiliates convention later this spring, had pursued the 43-year-old Shandling.

Shandling reportedly turned down the job at an estimated $5-million annual salary because he felt he wouldn't have enough time to prepare the show properly by its planned August launching. Shandling's manager, Brad Grey, who is executive producer of "The Larry Sanders Show," said Tuesday that the comedian rejected the offer "after long consideration."

Grey said Shandling is "very comfortable" with his HBO series but that "you have to take a deep breath and think about it" when an offer like NBC's comes along: "He felt it was something he could be proud of and accomplish. But the final decision was that this was not the time to jump right in and accept. They needed to have the show on the air as soon as they could.

"It's a decision that's emotional, financial and creative, and in the end we passed."

Grey added that there was "a sense of urgency" about NBC's timing in getting the new "Late Night" series launched.

Ohlmeyer said O'Brien was "digesting" his sudden bolt to fame and would hold a news conference Monday.

The NBC executive said "we saw the same" qualities in O'Brien that Michaels saw--that he has "a good comedy mind, is witty, charming and very intelligent."

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