Conan O’Brien gave his first interview since leaving NBC last night on 60 Minutes. You can watch the interview and read the transcript on Deadline. I didn’t catch the interview last night, but listened to the CD101 morning show jocks talking about it on my way to the office. They were debating Conan’s response to Steve Kroft’s question of whether Leno acted honorably in retaking The Tonight Show throne from Conan. Conan’s response was:
I don’t think I can answer that. I don’t think– I can just tell you maybe how I would have handled it. And I would do it differently.
According to the radio jocks (and pretty much everyone I know), Jay was not honorable in the handling of the Tonight Show. My ears perked up when one of the jocks wondered if Conan did not want to answer or whether, legally, he could not answer the question.
The Answer: He probably cannot for legal reasons.
Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand or are one of those esoteric academics that refuses to own a television, you know that Conan was paid handsomely to leave The Tonight Show without a fight. $32 million is the reported number. That means there’s a contract, people. This author would venture to guess that the contract has a hefty non-disparagement clause.
Yes, you can agree not to say nasty things about someone. This elevated and more civilized version of playground justice boils down to simple language in a contract that says “Conan agrees not to say bad things about Jay Leno.” The contract probably says that Conan is permitted to say he disagrees with the result or that it’s not what he wanted, but he can’t bad-mouth Jay.
So, when Conan said, “I don’t think I can answer that,” Conan is saying that it’s not worth giving up $32 million for the sweet revenge of calling Jay an unscrupulous, devious backstabber, like he probably wants to say.
My editorial is that Conan probably had two reasons for his answer, (1) his contractual obligations, and (2) Conan has always displayed the qualities of a complete class-act. So, while his contract is important to him and his future, his integrity probably keeps his lips sealed as well. We wish you the best, Mr. O’Brien.