The long, strange trip of Conan O'Brien, from Late Night to The Tonight Show and beyond.

One of the very first articles that appeared on this site was The Mighty Conan, a fan page celebrating Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Now that its host has succeeded Jay Leno as the host of The Tonight Show, it's a good time to look back at the rollercoaster ride that was Conan's early talk show career, as well as look ahead to his first week on the coveted 11:30PM time slot once occupied by television legends like Johnny Carson and Steve Allen.  We'll also describe, with some sadness and regret, the events that led to Conan being forced out of The Tonight Show, and end on a high note with a review of his nationwide comedy tour.


If necessity is the mother of invention, then Conan's start on Late Night was borne of outright desperation. When Johnny Carson vacated his spot as the host of The Tonight Show, there was a battle between Late Night host David Letterman and occasional Tonight Show fill-in Jay Leno to take that spot. Having spent a decade paying his dues behind Carson, Letterman thought he was a lock for the job... but he hadn't counted on Leno and his opportunistic manager working closely with the chairmen at NBC to take The Tonight Show for themselves. After much scheming and even a little Metal Gear Solid-style espionage, Jay Leno became the host of NBC's flagship late night series... and a frustrated David Letterman was forced to either remain second banana at NBC or take his talent elsewhere.

Filled with a boundless resentment for Jay Leno that would remain with him for the rest of his career, Letterman chose the latter option... and the suits at NBC had an hour of programming to fill. Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels was quick to offer one of his former writers, Conan O'Brien, as Letterman's replacement. O'Brien could be funny, as his work on both SNL and The Simpsons clearly proved, but did he have the charisma to take the place of a late night legend? NBC didn't care. The network needed an ass to fill that chair while it was still warm, and at the moment, any ass would do.

Late Night with Conan O'Brien debuted on September 13, 1993, starting with a sketch featuring both the host and NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. Brokaw put pressure on O'Brien, repeatedly reminding him of the gravity of his position as the new host of Late Night, and O'Brien responded by locking the door of his dressing room, standing on a chair, and threading his neck through a noose. Before he could kick the chair away, a page knocked on his door, shouting "Three minutes 'till showtime!"  Conan took his head out of the rope and headed for the stage, grimly accepting his fate as the replacement for the dearly missed and badly squandered David Letterman.


The first Late Night with Conan O'Brien set the groundwork for future episodes, with announcer Joel Godard starting off the festivities with his piercing baritone voice and stocky Andy Richter serving as the trusty sidekick. Rather than the crusty big band stylings of Doc Severensen or the lounge lizard cheesiness of Paul Schaffer, Conan took the concept of the late night band into the modern age with Max Weinberg, the drummer of beloved blue collar rocker Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band. Although Max had all the acting talent of your average professional athlete, he was frequently included in comedy sketches along with Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg and the rest of the Max Weinberg 7.

Although the foundation of Late Night was strong, the house set on it was distressingly flimsy. Conan had the same issues as other unproven newcomers to the talk show circuit, starstruck to the point of distraction by his celebrity guests and eager to please his viewers with no idea of how to actually make that happen. Tested on MTV and offered as a replacement for Arsenio Hall in syndication a year later, Jon Stewart did a much better job of appealing to the jaded twenty-something viewers that NBC hoped to entice with Conan O'Brien.  In fact, there were rumors that the network had considered Stewart as O'Brien's replacement.

(Looking back, it's somewhat shocking that Jon Stewart's show only lasted two seasons. Some of its sketches were incredibly cutting edge, particularly Talk Show Jon, best described as an early predecessor to series like Action League Now! and Robot Chicken. Its absence would be more deeply felt if Conan hadn't improved and Stewart hadn't replaced Craig Kilborn as the host of The Daily Show in 1999.)


Two years after the debut of Late Night, the devastating reviews from television critics (The Washington Post's Tom Shales referred to Conan as a "fidgety marionette") and mounting pressure from NBC to improve ratings had clearly taken their toll on Conan O'Brien. His once cheerful demeanor had gone sour and his comedy was starting to show jagged edges. Perhaps the best (or rather, the worst) example of this was one of the first sketches to use the less-than-sophisticated Synchrovox technology pioneered by the low-budget cartoon Clutch Cargo. Synchrovox sketches would eventually become Late Night's bread and butter, but their debut was inauspicious at best, a shrill left-wing screed against Newt Gingrich's Contract with America culminating in Sonny Bono singing a butchered version of I Got You Babe along with other vilified Republican congressmen.

This was when I had nearly given up on Late Night. It certainly didn't help matters that I was nearly a card-carrying member of the Young Republicans at the time, but the unvarnished truth was that the sketch just wasn't funny. It was a textbook example of transference, with Conan's rising contempt for his critics seeping into his work. While the resentment was certainly understandable, lashing out at the viewers, the only ones who could rescue his floundering show from cancellation, was not.

Perhaps Conan wasn't all that concerned with burning bridges at that point.  His contract with NBC was incredibly tentative, with weekly extensions being the norm during Late Night's lean years.  He was in constant danger of cancellation, with Lorne Michaels' influence being the only thing that kept his head from the chopping block.  However, O'Brien's "damn the torpedoes" attitude may have been what ultimately saved his series.  In the years that followed, he rejected the conventions of late night television, and finally won an audience in the process.


Conan O'Brien fans generally agree that the show took a turn for the better in 1996. Even Late Night itself seems to acknowledge this... in the show's tenth anniversary special, frequent guest Mr. T gave him one of his trademark gold chains, adorned with a medallion in the shape of a seven. When Conan reminded him that the show had been on for ten years, the A-Team star barked back, "Hey foo, you only been funny for seven!"

There are a number of factors responsible for Late Night's sudden, drastic improvement. Writer Robert Smidgel is undoubtedly at the top of that list... the creator of the TV Funhouse segments on Saturday Night Live was also responsible for enduring characters like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, as well as the later Synchrovox interviews with comically exaggerated parodies of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. A more carefree attitude, improved show structure, inspired segments like In The Year 2000, and sharpened interview skills also contributed to Late Night's transformation from one of the most forgettable talk shows on television to one of its best.

The day I realized Late Night had become something special was January 2nd, 1996. Conan had celebrated the end of the holiday season by jamming the Late Night Christmas tree, ornaments and all, into a chipper shredder. Never before, or since, have I witnessed someone so perfectly capture how quickly Americans dispense with the holidays after the last present has been unwrapped. From that moment on, I considered myself a fan of Late Night... and for the rest of the 1990s, Conan never gave me a reason to question my loyalty.

As the years progressed, Late Night continued to improve. Characters like Pimpbot 5000 and the Gaseous Weiner were introduced and quickly became fan favorites, with some even catching the attention of celebrities. Most of Conan's guests liked Triumph, or as they often called him, the Poop Dog, but Nicolas Cage was especially fond of Cloppy the suicidally depressed Late Night Horse. Conan O'Brien also played with standard talk show conventions, including the monologue which traditionally was the weakest part of Late Night. After he told a joke about Pamela Anderson with an embarassingly obvious punchline, his sidekick Andy Richter dropped down behind him in an iron cage and jubilantly shouted, "'Cuz she's got big fake BOOBIES!"


As it entered the 21st century, Late Night started to lose some of the demented brilliance that made it so successful in the late 1990s. A signficant chunk of it went out of the door in 2000, when Andy Richter left the show to pursue a career on prime-time television. That decision hurt Late Night, with Conan forced to make hasty changes to sketches like Desk Drive and In The Year 2000 that were largely dependent on Richter's involvement. However, the exodus didn't work out too well for Richter, either... neither the early Arrested Development precursor Andy Richter Controls the Universe nor Andy Barker P.I. lasted past one season. The shows themselves were clever, but Richter's boyish face and pudgy physique simply didn't click with the more superficial prime-time audience.

Late Night was also a victim of burnout. Characters like Shoeverine, a parody of Wolverine from the X-Men films with loafers for hands, were too topical, lacking the long-term appeal of the characters they replaced. Furthermore, sketches that had worked in the past were starting to show their age, while brilliant ideas like Late Night Closed Captioning were quietly put into retirement. After ten years, anyone could see the punchlines of Celebrity Survey coming from a mile away!

Despite his show's dip in quality, Conan's past successes and his enduring popularity with young viewers were getting him noticed at NBC. After years of grudgingly extending his contract week by week, the programming executives at the network became much more eager to keep him around, signing him for years at a time and even giving the greenlight to a reality series called Lost (not to be confused with the series that recently ended on ABC), created by O'Brien's production company Conaco.  Conan also hosted the 2002 Emmy Awards, giving him unprecedented exposure to a prime-time audience.

This would not be the end of NBC's concessions. In 2004, the network stunned the world by offering The Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien, despite the fact that Jay Leno was still pulling in strong ratings and had no intention of retiring from his post. Conan graciously accepted the offer, and in late March of 2009, celebrated by tearing his old studio apart and giving the pieces away to members of his audience. The years of obscurity and precarious employment were over... Conan had become the host of the most famous late night talk show in history!


The new Tonight Show began on June 1st, 2009, with Conan O'Brien racing from one end of the country to the other to become its host. So eager was he to begin his duties that he even tore through a wall to reach the stage, housed on a Universal Studios lot. After an inoffensive but largely uneventful monologue, he left to spend some quality time with a hundred Universal Studios tourists, cracking jokes about the movie sets and buying them gifts of cheap toilet paper and off-off-brand soda at a nearby dollar store. Next came the first guest of the night, Saturday Night Live alum Will Farrell, followed by a performance from grunge rock pioneers Pearl Jam.

Fans feared the earlier time slot would dull Conan's comedic edge, and indeed, the first week of the show seems to confirm those suspicions. The new show is more structured than the old one, with a longer monologue and pricey pre-taped segments replacing the hilariously low-budget Synchrovox interviews and bizarre bit characters. Sadly, for every dollar invested in the slickly produced comedy routines, an ounce of quirky charm and seat of the pants improvisation has been lost. You need to look no further than the newly titled In the Year 3000 for proof... the ratty old smocks with jingle bells sewn into the fronts are gone, but so are the wonderfully surreal jokes and unpredictable punchlines.

Also, for all he brought to Late Night, Andy Richter seems dreadfully miscast as the announcer of The Tonight Show. His voice just doesn't have the authority of Joel Godard's, sounding like it belongs to the excitable fat kid in fifth grade who got his hands on a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 the night before, and forgot to take his Ritalin in the morning. It's also a little jarring to have the camera rapidly switch back and forth between a brightly lit Conan and his friend, shrouded in darkness. If Ed McMahon could share the spotlight with Johnny Carson, there's no reason Conan O'Brien can't reserve a space on his lavish new stage for Andy Richter.

In spite of its flaws, longtime fans have to feel an immense sense of pride for Conan in taking the reins of The Tonight Show after years of living in the shadow of Jay Leno's massive chin. They also have to believe that the show will get better more quickly than Late Night had... Conan just needs to adapt to his new surroundings, feel around for the boundaries set by Broadcast Standards and Practices, and sneak past them when they're not paying attention.


In January 2010, just seven months after his debut, Conan O'Brien's improbable rise to The Tonight Show came to a sudden, ugly end.  Few thought NBC would have the audacity to pull the rug out from under Conan so soon after his Tonight Show debut, but radio personality Howard Stern had his suspicions.  In a Late Night interview from December 14, 2006, Stern dispensed with his usual self-congratulatory banter and asked Conan, "you don't really think this is going to happen, do you?"  Stern had good reason to doubt that Conan's transition to 11:30PM would go smoothly... after all, Jay Leno, the man who had previously usurped The Tonight Show from David Letterman, had never actually left the network.

Jay Leno announced that he would retire from The Tonight Show in 2004, but quickly changed his mind, threatening to pull up stakes and start a talk show on another network.  NBC president Jeff Zucker panicked and quickly signed Leno to a new contract, forgetting that he had already made a prior commitment to let Conan O'Brien have The Tonight Show.  The crisis of Leno migrating to a competitor was averted, but the decision would only create more headaches for the network in the immediate future.

How do you split one talk show among two hosts?  As it turns out, you can't.  Conan O'Brien still expected to bring The Tonight Show into the next decade, while Jay Leno, whose production company bears the name Big Dog, demanded to remain the alpha male of NBC's late night line-up.  Zucker proposed a solution that would keep all parties happy, while lowering production costs at the network.  Inspired by the success of low-budget reality television, he offered to give Leno a variety show in the 10PM time slot and let O'Brien keep his own show at 11:30PM.

In theory, Zucker's plan may have seemed like it was crafted by Solomon himself, but in practice, it was as messy and unpleasant as splitting a child in half to appease its squabbling parents.  Although Conan kept quiet about NBC's decision to undermine his authority as the king of late night, Norm MacDonald said what he must have been thinking in his final appearance on Late Night.  "Leno outfoxed you again, didn't he?," MacDonald teased as the news of Leno's move to 10PM came to light.  He then imitated Conan's manager, saying, "Remember that conversation we had where you said you'd never have to f---ing follow Leno again?  Well..."

When The Jay Leno Show finally debuted three months after Conan's Tonight Show premiere, it was a disaster on every conceivable level.  After a promising start, ratings for the series plunged to five million viewers... a low number for the lucrative 10PM time slot.  The viewers who changed the channel didn't come back for the rest of the night, a trend frustrated affiliates called "the Leno effect."  This damaged the ratings for the shows that followed it, including local news broadcasts and Conan O'Brien's The Tonight Show.

A glance at Metacritic reveals why The Jay Leno Show was such effective viewer repellent.  The series, a hodgepodge of Leno's usual comedy and satellite interviews, was given an unflattering rating of 48.  Critics complained that Leno hadn't delivered on his promise to deliver something fresh and unexpected to prime-time, instead relying on the same stale sketches that had gotten him through sixteen years of The Tonight Show.  "This is Jay and that's what he does," Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times lamented.  "The only thing he does, apparently."

NBC stubbornly stood by Jay Leno at first, claiming that his low ratings were offset by the equally low production costs of the show.  However, the network's affiliates had reached the end of their patience, and demanded for the sake of their news broadcasts that The Jay Leno Show be put into permanent retirement.  NBC could not risk its affiliates signing contracts with one of the other, more successful networks, so it relented, cancelling the ill-conceived variety show after four months.


The Jay Leno Show was scheduled to be taken off the air in February, but its host remained a liability.  He still had a contract, and there was still the risk that he could take flight to a competitor.  Jeff Zucker sharpened up his baby-splitting axe and offered another compromise... Jay Leno could host an abbreviated version of his show at 11:30PM, while Conan O'Brien could host The Tonight Show in its entirety at 12:00AM.

There was just one problem.  Jay Leno, always eager to polish the network brass, was open to the idea, but O'Brien considered moving The Tonight Show after a sixty year run at 11:30PM blasphemous, and defiantly opposed it.  In a press release addressed to "the people of Earth," Conan explained, "I sincerely believe that delaying The Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.  I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction."

After the news went public, Conan O'Brien's fans joined together in a massive show of support for the deposed talk show host.  Rallies were held across the country, Internet users started an informal club known as Team Conan, and ratings for The Tonight Show steadily rose during the last two weeks, hitting an all-time high of eight million viewers for the series finale.  David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun noted that a significant majority of these viewers were in the sought-after 18-49 age demographic, and that more of them had watched Conan's finale than any other evening program on any network that year.

The last two weeks of The Tonight Show were incredible, on par with Conan O'Brien's best work from Late Night in the late 1990s.  No longer constrained by network executives' demands that he tailor his comedy to a mainstream audience, Conan went all out for his most dedicated fans, bringing back characters like the Masturbating Bear and savaging NBC in both his monologues and comedy sketches.  A brief series of skits introduced characters like the Veyron Bugatti mouse that "aren't so much funny as they are crazy expensive" for the network to air.

(Conan admitted in the final episode that the sketches really weren't that expensive, but The Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson rebutted this on his Twitter page by claiming that the licensing for songs played during guest introductions were in the six figure range, including a whopping $500,000 for The Beatles classic Lovely Rita.  Hell hath no fury like a redhead scorned, eh?)

The celebrity guests who were invited on the last two weeks of The Tonight Show showered Conan with sympathy and support.  Robin Williams ran to a painting of the NBC building behind Conan's desk and made obscene gestures while shouting "IDIOTS!  YOU DID THE WRONG THING!!!"  Tom Hanks was less colorful in his assessment of the situation, but assured Conan that he would be the only host of The Tonight Show in his home... before inviting him to take his act there.  Folk rock legend Neil Young requested an appearance on the final episode, then after a stirring performance of Long May You Run, whispered to Conan "thank you for all you've done for new music."

Surprisingly, that support extended to talk show hosts on other networks.  Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman, and Craig Ferguson called a temporary cease fire with Conan O'Brien, and instead set their sights on his replacement.  Kimmel was especially vicious, ambushing Jay Leno on his own show.  When Leno asked Kimmel about the best prank he ever pulled on someone, he responded, "Well, once I told a guy I was going to let him have my show in five years, then when the five years came, I gave it to him, and I took it back almost instantly.  I think he works for FOX now."  Letterman took a few swipes of his own, poking holes in Jay Leno's "nice guy" image and showing brief documentaries detailing his rival's unscrupulous rise to power on late night television.

Despite a surge in ratings and the fierce devotion of a massive fanbase, NBC remained intractible in its decision to take The Tonight Show from Conan O'Brien and return it to Jay Leno.  The final episode aired on January 22, 2010, and spilled over into the next day, the fifth anniversary of Johnny Carson's death.  Repeats of Conan's Tonight Show aired until March, when Jay Leno once again assumed control of the series.


In exchange for an early termination of his contract and a hefty severance package of forty million dollars, NBC forced Conan O'Brien to agree to some very uncomfortable concessions.  He could not host a talk show on television for nine months, and couldn't appear on television at all until May.  Conan was also barred from performances on radio and internet video sites, in a move meant to discourage competition with the new (and old) host of The Tonight Show.  Finally, NBC demanded that Conan hold his tongue about both the network and Jay Leno.  No such expectations were made of Leno, however... a week after Conan's departure, he went on The Oprah Winfrey Show for an hour of self-pity and revisionist history.  (Television critic Aaron Barnhart did an outstanding job of dissecting the interview on his web site, TV Barn... the feature can be found here)

Although Conan's agreement with NBC was a great inconvenience, it didn't silence him completely.  He started a Twitter account with his team of writers on February 24, 2010, attracting instant attention despite limiting himself to a single post a day.  So popular was Conan's miniature journal that it made mild-mannered college student Sarah Killen famous by association when he randomly made her his one and only Twitter friend.  As of this writing, Conan tips the scales at one million followers, while Killen sports a quite respectable thirty thousand readers.

Twitter was a good first step in keeping Conan O'Brien in the public eye, but the man had higher aspirations.  On his final episode of The Tonight Show on January 24, 2010, Conan vowed that he would continue to perform, even at a 7-11 parking lot if necessary.  Months later, he made good on his promise, announcing the Legally Prohibited from Appearing on Television Tour on March 11, 2010.  The move was a stroke of genius, letting O'Brien bring his act to the world without violating the agreement he made with his former employers.

The tour started off small, making its first appearance at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon and scheduling a handful of stops across the country.  However, when tickets for the events quickly sold out, even at prices in excess of one hundred dollars, the tour expanded to forty-two shows in dozens of cities.  Some of the stops on the tour even dropped the cost of tickets to $25 or less, a welcome act of generosity in cash-strapped states like Michigan.

Performances on the tour have been largely uniform, with only minor changes in the script to add some local flavor.  When he took the stage at Michigan State University's Jack Breslin Center, Conan wore a Spartan T-shirt, then questioned the manhood of MSU's rival, the University of Michigan.  There was also an unflattering advertisement for Riv's, a local bar and grill with "strains of bacteria currently unidentified by the scientific community," and several references to local hotspots in a taped monologue by popular Late Night character Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

Beyond that, the show remains constant from city to city.  It begins with a lengthy opening act starring Reggie Watts, a beatboxer whose skill on the mic is eclipsed only by his massive, frizzy afro.  Armed with synthesizers, digital instruments, and an extensive vocabulary of swear words, Watts is best described as the product of a three-way between Moby, Michael Winslow, and Eddie Murphy at his pre-Shrek prime.  He frequently invites the audience to sing along with his bass-heavy beats, the first of many opportunities for the audience to get involved with the show.

Once Watts ends his performance, the main event begins.  After a brief introduction courtesy of Andy Richter, the Legally Prohibited Band (the Max Weinberg 7, minus Max) takes to the stage, with Richie "LaBamba" Rosenberg belting out an enthusiastic cover of Curtis Mayfield's Move On Up and Mark Pender putting his lungs in jeopardy by holding a note for nearly a minute on his trumpet.  Next comes a video clip detailing Conan's fall from grace as the host of The Tonight Show, along with his return to fighting shape and his preparation for the tour.  When the clip ends, Conan O'Brien takes to the stage for a brief monologue.

The rest of the night is a jumble of comedy and musical acts, with many of the songs in the show performed by Conan himself.  Some sketches are lifted straight from Late Night, with slight tweaks to ward off an NBC lawsuit... for instance, the Masturbating Bear puts on a white bear's head and becomes the "Self-Pleasuring Panda," while the Walker: Texas Ranger lever has been redubbed the Chuck Norris Rural Police Officer Handle.  Other sketches encourage audience participation, like a teleprompted conversation between Conan and his fans that culminates in O'Brien licking a member of the Legally Prohibited Band.

Special guest appearances are not a guarantee in the show, but not uncommon either.  The Lansing leg of the tour played host to both Sarah Killen, who gave the Chuck Norris lever a tug, and Detroit native Kid Rock, who performed a bluesy rock song about things he'd do as the president of the United States.  (His highest priority?  Legalizing marijuana.  Color me shocked.)  Other guests vary by state and have included everyone from grunge rock legend Eddie Vedder to Saturday Night Live alum Tim Meadows.

Perhaps most thrilling for fans of Conan is that both he and the members of his band are willing to get waist deep into the audience, running through the aisles for quick high-fives.  As he races through the crowd, with his shirt drenched with sweat and his towering mane of hair deflated, the one thing about Conan O'Brien that remains fresh after two hours of performing under hot stage lights is his exuberance.  Lansing was the twenty-ninth stop on the Legally Prohibited tour... Conan has told these jokes dozens of times, yet his love for the material, his audience, and the tour is just as strong as it was the first day he stepped on stage.  O'Brien expressed regret that this may be the last time he'll ever be able to perform on tour, and undoubtedly, his fans share that disappointment.


Conan's fate after the tour has been decided... rather than host a show on FOX as was expected by fans and television insiders, he will migrate to the basic cable network TBS as a lead-in to the George Lopez talk show Lopez Tonight.  There were rumors that Conan had muscled into the 11:00PM time slot and forced Lopez into midnight.  However, Lopez has expressed no objections with the rescheduling, at least publicly, and has even joked that television viewers will go "Lo-Co" for the new programming block.  (He's a race-based comedian, folks.  It's what he does.)

Why TBS?  Why not FOX?  Well, it originally seemed that FOX was a lock for Conan, thanks to a stipulation in the affiliate contract that required each station to air a talk show produced by the network at 11:00PM every weeknight.  However, the affiliates were making plenty of money by airing syndicated programming during that hour, and after FOX's first unsuccessful attempt to bring Conan aboard in 2005, many asked to be freed from this requirement.  Not realizing that there would be a second chance for Conan, FOX agreed to the requests, making it impossible for O'Brien to appear on all of its affiliates.

With FOX out of the picture, TBS was the only logical choice for a comeback.  Many of the other cable networks that would have been a good fit for Conan had already backed other successful television programs.  Comedy Central had the one-two punch of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, Adult Swim had a full plate of adult cartoons, and E! was already Joel McHale and Chelsea Lately's turf.  Others networks, like Spike TV and G4, didn't have the visibility or the viewership necessary to make it worth Conan's while.  Ultimately, TBS was the best choice.  The network has existed in some form since 1976, giving it unparalleled market penetration, and its focus on comedy and past attempt with Lopez Tonight to establish itself as a late night player made it ideal as Conan's new home.

Will Conan O'Brien's yet untitled series be a success?  It's still too early to tell... it will have fierce competition from both the broadcast networks and Comedy Central when his new series airs in November.  However, some industry analysts believe that Conan's migration to cable couldn't have come at a better time.  Alan Sepinwall of the Star-Ledger points out that "at TBS, he's suddenly the channel's biggest star, and yet overall expectations will be much lower than they'd be at Fox.  He'll also hopefully have more freedom to experiment with the form, and to focus more on the things he does best."  Moreover, with the viewership of traditional networks on the decline and the popularity of pay television on the rise, Conan may be building an empire that will not only outlast his time on The Tonight Show, but Leno's as well.