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Conan Breaks Silence on "Tonight Show," NBC Exit

Very few things in this country galvanize public opinion like someone trying to mess around with people's preferences in the bedroom.

We're talking, of course, about what they watch on late night television. And NBC found that out a few months ago when Conan O'Brien, the newly installed host of "The Tonight Show," quit after the network announced it was going to push "The Tonight Show" into tomorrow, and to give its traditional time slot back to O'Brien's predecessor Jay Leno. It triggered a lot of bad publicity for NBC, an outpouring of public support for O'Brien, and some of the best late night jokes in a decade.

O'Brien walked away with a $32 million settlement and a new cable show, and NBC did its best to push him into oblivion, legally prohibiting him from saying anything false or disparaging about the network, and from giving interviews or appearing on television - until now.

If you're wondering what happened to Conan O'Brien and what he thinks about all of this, you are about to find out.

Photos: Conan O'Brien

"So what's with the beard?" correspondent Steve Kroft asked O'Brien.

"That first day that I woke up and was no longer the host of 'The Tonight Show,' I remember the first thought I had is 'I am not shaving.' And that was my small victory, you know. 'Ok, so I lost the Tonight Show but I'll show them, I'll stop shaving,'" he replied.

"This has been quite a year," Kroft remarked.

"Yeah. That's it. We're done. This was a lot of fun. This year has been, is still incomprehensible to me. The amount of stuff that's happened in my life in the last year is…it's gonna take me a long time to process it," O'Brien said.

After leaving 'The Tonight Show' in January and hanging out at his home trying to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life, he decided the best therapy would be to get out of the house and back to work.

He assembled a lot of his old staff, opened a Twitter account, and began planning a nationwide comedy tour - something that he had never done before, and one of the few things he was allowed to do contractually.

Kroft met up with him in Seattle.

"You must have been miserable for the last couple of months," Kroft remarked.

"I went through some stuff. And I got very depressed at times. It was like a marriage breaking up suddenly, violently, quickly. And I was just trying to figure out what happened. When we started putting this tour together, I started to feel better almost immediately. And then there is almost no better antidote to what I've just been through than to do this every night," O'Brien said.

"Doing this tour though, this is a huge milestone for me. This is the first time anyone has paid to see me… oh they've paid to make me go away," O'Brien joked.

The "Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour" has boosted his confidence, kept him relevant and provided an outlet for him to explore his anger, disappointment, and anxiety with mostly self-deprecating humor.

"My own show again! I just can't wait to have my own show again. I'd even take a primetime show that's on at 10; anything to have my own show again," he joked.

After 40 performances in 32 cities in the U.S. and Canada, the tour will wind up next month at Radio City Music Hall in New York, right next door to NBC's corporate headquarters where this whole late night fiasco was cooked up.

Less than one year after Leno handed "The Tonight Show" off to O'Brien, NBC decided to cancel Leno's disastrous prime show and move him back into his old time period at 11:35 p.m. Eastern. Conan's "Tonight Show," which was losing badly in the ratings to David Letterman, was to be bumped back to 12:05 a.m. the next morning.

"Was in the back of your mind that 'Look, if I don't do that well, they can just pop Leno back in'?" Kroft asked.

"I'm a paranoid person. And I think I'm the kind of person that can come up with lots of negative scenarios. But I remembered thinking that seemed like that was a stretch even for me," O'Brien said.

What followed were some unpleasant discussions with NBC's West Coast brass.

"It just felt like the tone went very quickly from, 'Take your time, we understand this is a tough decision,' to you know, 'Let's go,'" O'Brien said. "And that probably helped me a little bit feel like, 'You know what? This environment doesn't feel right and I've been with these people a long time. And I don't like, I really don't like the way this is going.' And when it started to get toxic and I started to feel that I'm not sure these people even really want me here. Let's just…I can't do it."

Asked if he thinks they wanted him to leave, O'Brien said, "Uh, yeah, that's crossed my mind. Again, I don't know how thought out this whole thing was. But if they wanted me to leave, it worked."

"This was just really, really hard for him. It was watching someone's heart get broken," O'Brien's wife Liza told Kroft.

Liza O'Brien was one of his main confidants and closest advisors during the debacle.

Asked if she approved of everything her husband did, she told Kroft, "A hundred percent, yeah."

"You thought he should've left?" Kroft asked.

"Absolutely," she replied.

Asked what she thinks of the way her husband was treated by NBC, O'Brien said, "From my perspective, it felt like they never really gave him the job. That they said, 'We're going to give you this job in five years,' and they keep him with the company, and they, you know, he said, 'I won't go anywhere else, and I'll keep working for you, and I'm in it for the long haul.' And it felt like they lost their nerve to really make a change and that was too bad. It was a shame, 'cause it would've been great to see what he could've done if he had had their full support, and had some more time."

"You've got this non-disparagement agreement," Kroft remarked.

"Do you have a copy? 'Cause I haven't read it in awhile. I keep one in…my wallet," O'Brien joked.

"You do?" Kroft asked.

"Any time people come up to me, 'Hey, so what's the deal with Jay Leno?' 'Hold on a second. He's a fine and good man.' There we go, put that away," O'Brien joked.

"Can I assume that this interview would take a different tenor if that agreement did not exist?" Kroft asked.

"No, I don't think it would," O'Brien said. "The biggest thing people come up and say to me in gas stations and restaurants, I have so many people say this to me, 'Hey partner, you got screwed.' I don't, and I always tell them, 'No, I didn't. I didn't get screwed. I'm fine. It just didn't work out.'"

"Well, you did get screwed," Kroft remarked.

"You think I got screwed?" O'Brien asked.

"Well, I think most people think you got screwed. I mean, Jay Leno thinks you got screwed. Jay Leno thinks he got screwed," Kroft said.

"How did he get screwed again?" O'Brien asked, laughing. "Explain that part to me. I'm sorry. Jay's got 'The Tonight Show.' I have a beard and an inflatable bat. And I'm touring city to city. Who can say who won and who lost? I'm laughing 'cause crying would be sad."

O'Brien said Leno hadn't reached out to him.

"No calls?" Kroft asked.

"No…I do not think I will be hearing from him. We should get him in here," O'Brien said. "Is he… gonna be a surprise walk-on?"

"No, no, no," Kroft said.

"Okay," O'Brien said.

"But call, if you know his number, we can, I'm sure he'd come over," Kroft joked.

"He may have caller ID. He won't pick up," O'Brien replied.

"I think he, Leno, would say 'Look, I was riding high. I was number one and I was still number one when I left and Conan made this deal with NBC and NBC said, Okay, Jay, we're gonna take you off the air in five years regardless of whether you're number one or number two or what,'" Kroft remarked. "I think he felt like he was forced out by NBC at a time when he was a strong number one and was pushed out the door. That's his argument."

"It's hard for me to get inside his head and argue his side of this whole thing. Here's what I can say: I'm happy with my decision. I sleep well at night. And I hope he's happy with his decision," O'Brien replied.

Asked if he thinks Leno lobbied for this, O'Brien said, "I don't know. But what I know is what happened, which is that he went and took that show back."

"Do you believe he acted honorably during all of this?" Kroft asked.

"I don't think I can answer that," O'Brien said, exhaling. "I don't think I can just tell you maybe how I would have handled it. And I would do it differently."

"You wouldn't have come back on 'The Tonight Show,'" Kroft remarked.

"If I had surrendered 'The Tonight Show' and handed it over to somebody publicly and wished them well and then, I don't, would not have come back six months later. But that's me, you know. Everyone's got their own way of doing things," O'Brien said.

Asked what he would have done, O'Brien told Kroft, "Done something else, go someplace else. I mean, that's just me."

He is equally disappointed with NBC, the company where he worked most of his adult life, and with NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker, who he has known since they were classmates at Harvard.

O'Brien said Zucker hasn't called him.

"You haven't talked to Zucker since this offer was made to you?" Kroft asked.

"That's right. You know at some point I'm sure I'm gonna bump into these people. And, you know, I'm not sure we're gonna…have our arms around each other and drinking beer and singing old Irish fight songs. 'Cause I don't think they know any. But you know, I wish this is gonna sound crazy, I do wish these people well," O'Brien said.

"Jeff Zucker was quoted as saying, 'At the end of the day, the viewers voted. And they didn't like Conan as the host of The Tonight Show,'" Kroft remarked.

"Can I take back what I just said?" O'Brien asked.

"You take issue with that?" Kroft asked.

"In my opinion, I don't think that's fair or accurate. But he's entitled to his opinion. I think for anyone to say that the results were in after six months, that doesn't ring true to me," O'Brien said.

"They said that for the first time in history 'The Tonight Show' was losing money," Kroft said.

"I honestly don't see how that's possible. It's really not possible. It isn't possible," O'Brien said.

Asked if he expected that NBC would give him more of a chance, O'Brien replied, laughing, "Yes."

"Do you feel like it was a failure?" Kroft asked.

"My 'Tonight Show'? No. Absolutely not," O'Brien said.

O'Brien does agree with NBC's comments that it was a business decision motivated by money and he acknowledges that Leno had the more expensive contract and would have been even harder to let go.

"Some people have reported that NBC would have had to pay him $150 million," Kroft remarked.

"Uh huh, yeah," O'Brien said. "So if you look at it that way and you're working at say, I don't know, General Electric and you tell them, 'Uh you know there's this to make that guy go away or there's this, that decision's probably pretty clear. And I think in my gut, I honestly believe, everybody knows that's what happened. They did what they had to do and okay, I get it. And the only thing I take exception to is subsequently people saying 'Well you know Conan was losing money and you know actually he was murdering cats…what you know whatever.'"

Last month, O'Brien finally pulled the trigger on his future, raising some eyebrows by signing on to do an 11 p.m. show for the cable channel TBS and not with a broadcast network.

"I do not look down my nose at cable," O'Brien said. "And I think anyone who does isn't paying attention to television these days. 'Cause this world is changing very quickly."

"You have $30 million that you didn't have before. You've got a very lucrative new gig on TBS, which has an audience that…," Kroft remarked.

"Very young audience," O'Brien pointed out.

"Custom-made for you," Kroft replied. "It wasn't all bad."

"That's the point I keep making. It's crucial to me that anyone seeing this take…they take anything away from this it's I'm fine. I'm doing great. I hope people still find me comedically absurd and ridiculous. And I don't regret anything. I do believe and this might be my Catholic upbringing or Irish magical thinking, but I think things happen for a reason. I really do," O'Brien said.

"I thought the Lutherans believed that," Kroft remarked.

"Oh, my God. It is Lutherans," O'Brien replied, laughing. "Okay. I believe that if I experience any joy in life, I'll go to hell. That's what I believe. But you get my point."

Produced by Deirdre Naphin

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