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Opinion: Blame The System

POSTED January 27, 2010 12:35 a.m.

Sometimes it helps to get another perspective, to look at a situation from a different point of view. At times, in fact, it might even result in a change of heart, or at least a change of mind.

Case in point: Friday, as the civilized world waited for the “final Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” on NBC, I was admittedly irritated. It seemed unfathomable to me that we should be concerned in the slightest that O’Brien was out and Leno was back in.

Let me be quick to add that I have nothing against Conan O’Brien. If the late news was over, my TV would often stay on and I would enjoy his monologue and see if there was a guest on the show that night I’d consider staying awake another hour to watch. He is certainly not what we picture when we think of a ‘star,’ what with his average height, that unruly red hair, pale enough that you’d probably be sitting pretty if you invested in his make-up company of choice when he got the Tonight Show call seven months ago.

No, my irritation was rooted in the fact that he was getting millions and millions of dollars — somewhere around $32 million — because the network bumped him from the show. They wrangled about time slots, back and forth, and possible options to please everyone, but, in the end, Leno gets his old show back and O’Brien is shown the door.

Maybe it was just the timing that threw me; we can’t seem to find the money to keep our troops well protected overseas, rescue and recovery efforts following the devastating earthquake in Haiti are foremost in people’s minds and now parts of Southern California are going to have to rebuild after sliding away in mud … and people are all atwitter about Conan O’Brien’s severance package.

It just shows you the mindset of our entertainment-driven society, when the top TV shows are ‘reality’ and the ‘real housewives’ of some city parade their dirty laundry for ratings and fame. You can see how well that worked out for Jon and Kate plus eight (and the occasional boyfriend/girlfriend), can’t you?

So there I was in the office on Friday afternoon, spouting off about my displeasure with the whole Leno-O’Brien multi-million dollar debacle when my general manager told me point blank ‘Good for him’ and another co-worker mentioned something about ‘that’s what contracts are for.’

I listened to their points of view, considered the various other statements they and others in the office made and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t really Conan O’Brien that I was mad at. It was the society that allows us to place more value on someone who can entertain us for an hour than those that risk their lives everyday for other people, for those that teach our children and help make them better citizens, for the factory worker just trying to make ends meet.

But Conan O’Brien did not create that environment … he is just lucky and talented enough to reap the rewards.

And even I can’t fault him for that.

During the late evening news on Friday, they did a ‘teaser’ for his last show and, giving in to my curiosity and considering my change of heart regarding the situation itself, I stayed up to watch Conan O’Brien’s last appearance as host of The Tonight Show.

What did I find? A man humble enough to get choked up when he talked of the people camping out in the pouring rain, just waiting for a chance to get tickets to his final show; a man grateful for the support shown to him during this time and genuinely thankful to NBC — recent fallout or not — for the opportunity to host the show for seven months and for having been his employer for some 20 years, dating back to when he was a staff writer on Saturday Night Live.

I saw a man willing to poke fun at himself … but unwilling to be bitter about this turn of events.

Yes, it seems an exorbitant amount of money to be paid for staying off TV for the next several months. But then, again, the figures people are paid to hit a baseball and catch a football are pretty astronomical too and we accept them as the cost of doing business. That’s just the way it is.

And knowing that O’Brien fought for severance packages for his entire team — producers, writers, technicians, and more — plus used some of his final show time to encourage viewers to contribute to the Haitian earthquake relief effort, gave me a good feeling. My suspicion is that some of his own $32 million will be put to better — and more productive — use than buying another fancy car or jetting off for some lavish vacation. And, like he said, he will show up again somewhere, someday, to entertain us again.

I’ll probably tune in.

— MARG JACKSON

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