Following several days of often tense negotiations, NBC and Conan O'Brien inked a deal early Thursday to end the host's short tenure on 'The Tonight Show,' NBC has confirmed. This paves the way for allowing Jay Leno to return to late night from his unsuccessful run at 10 p.m.
According to the network, O'Brien will receive $33 million and his staff another $12 million. The sticking point in O'Brien's complex exit negotiations with NBC had involved his employees. It's also believed the agreement includes a provision that would bar O'Brien from appearing on other shows or hosting for an undetermined amount of time.
"In the end, Conan was appreciative of the steps NBC made to take care of his staff and crew, and decided to supplement the severance they were getting out of his own pocket," his manager, Gavin Polone, told The Wall Street Journal. "Now he just wants to get back on the air as quickly as possible."
The proposal allows O'Brien, who would exit 'Tonight' less than a year after taking over from Leno, to start work on a competing network as early as September. But he would be barred from making NBC the butt of jokes. Speculation that the Fox network might court O'Brien for a late-night show when he leaves NBC prompted a monologue joke Tuesday.
Listing things he might do with "all my new free time," O'Brien concluded with "Make a big move to Fox. Megan Fox."
The fate of characters developed by O'Brien and his staff was also part of the negotiations. Since they are technically the intellectual property of NBC, O'Brien deemed it the right time on Wednesday's show to bring out an old friend, one last time:
O'Brien was "dug in" on getting his staffers a good severance package, but NBC fired back in a statement, saying "it was Conan's decision to leave NBC that resulted in nearly 200 of his staffers being out of work."
Adding: "We have already agreed to pay millions of dollars to compensate every one of them. This latest posturing is nothing more than a PR ploy," the network said.
O'Brien asked to be released from his contract, which has about two-and-a-half years left, after rejecting NBC's plan to push him and 'Tonight' to 12:05 a.m. EST to make way for a half-hour show with Leno at 11:35 p.m.
The network, hit by poor ratings for its prime-time experiment, 'The Jay Leno Show,' and for O'Brien's 'Tonight,' was trying to keep both comedians on board.
O'Brien has seen his viewership jump in recent days. Ratings for Leno in the same window, however, remained flat.
The dispute has repeatedly spilled on-air, with jokes aplenty made about it by Leno, O'Brien and hosts at other networks. CBS' David Letterman has been especially brutal on NBC and Leno, whom he has dubbed "Big Jaw" during several scathing monologues.
The crowd was rewarded with a studio rooftop wave from O'Brien and a few words from his 'Tonight' sidekick, Andy Richter, who thanked them and said it's been a tough time but also a "really fun" one.
"The lawyers won't let me say anything else," Richter added.