By Lisa de Moraes
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; C06
NBC responded Tuesday to various reports that the negotiations to swap out Conan O'Brien on "The Tonight Show" for Jay Leno are stalled on just one issue, and no, it's not Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
The sticking point is severance for staff members of Conan's "Tonight," which they will need soon because the show leaves the air presumably this Friday.
"A person close to the talks said Tuesday that O'Brien is intent on guaranteeing severance deals for his 'Tonight Show' staff and crew and he is dug in on that point," the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
How brave of Conan, since the one chink in his armor is the fact that his staff would not be facing unemployment if he had agreed to move the show to midnight. About a week ago, NBC announced that Jay Leno would be back at 11:35 p.m., followed by Conan's "Tonight Show." Leno back in late night would presumbly feed Conan's ratings-starved show a bigger lead-in audience.
We're not sure why The Reporters Who Cover Television should care so much more about Conan's staff than, say, the staff of Jerry Seinfeld's prime-time series when Jerry decided to hang it up, or the crew of "Hank" when ABC canceled that sitcom the other day.
But they do.
Anyway, according to the AP, the fate of poor Triumph -- and Pimpbot 5000 and the Masturbating Bear -- remained undecided Tuesday afternoon "but [is] not a key issue for O'Brien, whose focus was his staff's welfare," the person said.
Gavin Polone, Conan's manager, took time from his busy day to tell the New York Times that the staff's welfare was causing problems because "it's the same thing that's going on all over the country when people are put out of work." But he added, "We're fighting to do better for them."
We'll stop here to take a minute to fight down the nausea.
Okay, we feel better now. In response to these press reports about Conan and Gavin fighting heroically to help Conan's staff, NBC said, "It was Conan's decision to leave NBC that resulted in nearly 200 of his staffers being out of work."
"We have already agreed to pay millions of dollars to compensate every one of them," NBC said, adding: "This latest posturing is nothing more than a PR ploy."
According to our source, employee comp is just one of several points the two sides are still discussing.
Meanwhile, with Conan's ratings continuing to climb every day the drama continues -- he's now beating Leno's prime-time show among the younger viewers who are NBC's currency -- he's having no problem booking A-list talent for what is presumed to be his final week hosting "Tonight."
At press time, the rest of this week looks like this for Conan:
Tuesday: Quentin Tarantino.
Wednesday: Adam Sandler and Joss Stone.
Thursday: Robin Williams and Barry Manilow.
Friday: Tom Hanks and -- gack -- Will Ferrell.
Fittingly, Hanks was Conan's first big "get" as host of "Tonight," though he actually appeared on Conan's second show. The first night, Conan was stuck with the aforementioned Ferrell, who had been foisted on Conan's debut because he was, at that time, the star of NBC Universal's latest bad movie idea, "Land of the Lost, " which turned out to be a box-office disaster. The gratitude!