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O'Brien returns to TV as bearded laddy on friendly 60 Minutes turf

Conan with Kroft and in costume on comedy tour during Sunday's 60 Minutes segment, his first contractually allowed TV appearance since leaving NBC's Tonight Show on Jan. 22nd. Photos: Ed Bark

Well, he wasn't about to choose Dateline. So Conan O'Brien picked 60 Minutes Sunday for his first permissible TV appearance since NBC paid him $32 million to go away and give The Tonight Show back to Jay Leno.

O'Brien, bearded for the first time since returning to his old NBC Late Night show after the 2007-'08 writers' strike, also had a can't miss vein protruding from just below his right eye. But his 60 Minutes sit-down with correspondent Steve Kroft was relatively stress free. He obviously enjoyed O'Brien's company and regularly cracked up at the comedian's bemused reactions and riffs.

Still, this was fairly serious business, too, with O'Brien walking a fine line between not playing the victim while also making it clear that his old network wounded him to the core.

"You must have been miserable for the last couple of months," Kroft told him early in the interview.

"I went through some stuff," O'Brien said. "And I got very depressed at times. It was like a marriage breaking up suddenly, violently, quickly. And I was just trying to figure out what happened."

His anti-depressant became a recently launched comedy tour that comes to Dallas on May 13th at a long-sold out McFarlin Auditorium on the SMU campus. Then in November, O'Brien will join TBS cable's late night comedy lineup, bumping incumbent George Lopez back an hour to 11 p.m. (central).

Lopez keeps saying he's completely on board with that, but Kroft should have asked him about it anyway. Nor did Kroft mention that Leno's Tonight Show has been beating CBS' Late Show with David Letterman in the ratings ever since O'Brien left rather than be bumped back a half-hour. During O'Brien's tenure, Letterman returned to late night dominance for the first time in well over a decade. Kroft, of course, is a CBS employee. And Letterman's second string of defeats at the hands of Leno isn't something the network particularly wants to talk about.

O'Brien is still contractually prohibited from "disparaging" NBC, but managed to make it clear that he doesn't think much of the way Leno handled matters after NBC canceled his failed weeknight prime-time show.

"Has Jay reached out to you?" Kroft wondered.

"No," said O'Brien.

"No calls?"

"No, I do not think I will be hearing from him. We should get him in here."

In previously released excerpts from the 60 Minutes interview, O'Brien said he wouldn't have taken the Tonight Show back the way Leno did.

"But that's me, you know," he said. "Everyone's got their own, you know, way of doing things."

"What would you have done?" Kroft asked.

"Done something else," O'Brien replied. "Go someplace else. I mean, that's just me."

O'Brien also disagreed with NBC executives' contention that the Tonight Show was losing money for the first time ever during his brief tenure, which began on June 1st and ended on Jan. 22nd.

"I honestly don't see how that's possible," he said. "It's really not possible."

In the end, NBC bought out O'Brien for $32 million in walking away money rather than pay Leno a reported contractually mandated $150 million to leave NBC.

"I honestly believe everybody knows that's what happened," O'Brien said when Kroft brought up the Leno figure. "They did what they had to do, and OK, I get it. And the only thing I take exception to is subsequently people saying, 'Well, you know, Conan was losing money and you know, actually he was murdering cats.' "

Kroft noted near the end of their sit-down that O'Brien is hardly hurting financially and now has a new show on another network, too.

"That's the point I keep making . . . I'm fine. I'm doing great," O'Brien told him. "I hope people still find me comedically absurd and ridiculous. And I don't regret anything."

The O'Brien segment closed with an excerpt from his comedy tour, which includes a fair amount of singing and guitar playing. To the tune of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," he sings in part, "They threw me out, it happened fast. They said please don't let the door hit your freckled Irish ass . . . Yeah, they kind of tried to kill me, but I made it out alive. I've got all my life to live, I have so many shows to give. Yeah, I'll survive."

We should all be so incredibly lucky.