Eye of the Hurricane

February 4, 2010

Bill and Conan

Filed under: Uncategorized — Austen Gregerson @ 4:34 pm

Although it’s old news, Conan O’Brien’s firing/quitting from The Tonight Show is still big news. He’s by far the shortest tenured host of the show’s history, with only seven months and a masturbating bear to his name. For most people in show business, this would be a death sentence – losing the highest profile job for a comedian in such a public fashion would make most network execs keep their distance like a ham sandwich from a fat guy.

But luckily for Conan, a quick look into the sports world shows that there are numerous cases of success even after such great failure. Namely, the case of Bill Belichick.

When comparing the two, it’s uncanny how much their paths have mirrored each other’s. Both went to prestigious colleges in the northeast, both found success from seemingly out of nowhere, and both have a thing for video cameras.

And the similarities don’t stop on a superficial level. Conan and Belichick were trained under the guidance of their respective field’s highest authorities with O’Brien serving as  a writer for Saturday Night Live/The Simpsons and Belichick serving under Bill Parcells while he coached for the Giants, Patriots and Jets. The opportunity for each to be mentored by such highly talented people enabled them to sit back and learn instead of having to fail in such critic-laden workplaces.

For Conan, his big break came in the form of landing the hosting job of the Late Night show after David Letterman left after a messy feud with Jay Leno for The Tonight Show(eerily familiar, no?). The first few years  featured a complete unknown trying to figure out how to make his comedy translate to his audience with himself as the deliverer, and without the adamant support of the show’s executive producer and former boss at SNL Lorne Michaels, he would have never gotten the opportunity to flourish over the years into one of the genres most highly coveted assets.

As for Belichick’s break, it came in the form of becoming the head coach for the Cleveland Browns which, much like Conan’s first opportunity, was met with mixed results. Over his five years with the Browns, he compiled a 36-44 record while also getting the teams last Playoff win in 1994.

Up until this point for both careers, things were looking up: Conan’s Late Night show became a hit and was being offered jobs at ABC and FOX to start a new talk show at 11:30, and Belichick had led the Browns to their first playoff win since the Jim Brown era. But here is where the career arcs take a twist.

Belichick resigned as head coach in January of 1996, just before the team announced it would move to Baltimore. He would rejoin Parcells in New England as the assistant head coach, later with the Jets as defensive coordinator. And for what is now common knowledge, Conan was given hosting duties of The Tonight Show after Leno’s 16-year run as host, only to quit after seven months when he refused to move The Tonight Show to 12:05 a.m due to lackluster ratings for both hosts.

While five years and seven months are certainly not comparable, the manners in which both failed are. For Belichick and the Browns, he was given a chance to coach at the highest level of his sport, even if it was at a losing franchise. And as for Conan, he was chosen to be the face of a program that has been the most important comedy show for numerous generations, even if it was on a last-place network. Both failed. Both bowed out, both left with a bad taste in their mouth.

If this was the end for both careers, Conan wouldn’t be allowed the same optimism as he should have now. But after a short stint as defensive coordinator for the Jets, Belichick became head coach for the Patriots and has led the team to four Super Bowls, winning three of them, groomed a sixth-round pick into one of the best quarterbacks of all time, and created a model franchise that has been attempted to be replicated across all sports.

It is Belichick’s success after such public failure that gives Conan’s career hope. Even when both men struggled to deliver results, their talents and intellects never came into question. And when Belichick was given an opportunity to start clean and learn from his prior mistakes, “wildly successful” is an understatement of what he has accomplished.

Most Hollywood insiders believe that there is a contract in the works between FOX and Conan O’Brien to start his own late-night talk show later this year. While television is anything but predictable, Conan can learn from sports that the most humbling of failures can lead to the greatest successes, as long as you can land in the right spot.


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