Last week, Conan O'Brien put the program he's hosted for the past seven months, The Tonight Show, up for sale on Craigslist. It was an absurd stunt typical of Mr. O'Brien, but beyond its comedic value, it's a proposition Canadian television executives should consider very seriously.
A staple of late-night TV since 1993, Mr. O'Brien has recently found himself the victim of what is now being widely regarded as one of the worst blunders in the history of broadcast television. With the failed shift of former Tonight Show host Jay Leno to prime time, NBC has decided to shuffle the deck once more, putting Mr. Leno back at the 11:35 p.m. time slot and nudging Mr. O'Brien to just after midnight. Mr. O'Brien has rejected the offer, meaning he could be without a place to host a show after the Olympics.
It seems a sad prospect for one of the funniest, sharpest and most irreverent people on television. But his displacement presents a magnificent opportunity for Canada, in particular the CBC. The Ceeb should make Mr. O'Brien an offer to host a late-night chat show in Canada, five nights a week.
At first, the idea may sound crazy, but consider what it would mean for Canada. From Ralph Benmergui to Mike Bullard, our country has long struggled to create a late-night chat show sensation of our own. Mr. O'Brien would come ready made, replete with a tried-and-true formula and a considerable international following. It would mean instant ratings successes and a huge amount of publicity. Mr. O'Brien and Canada are a fitting match; indeed, given his intensely self-deprecating wit, he is already essentially Canadian. (He fit in beautifully when he hosted a week of shows from Toronto in 2004.)
While he would come at great expense, there would be huge benefits for the CBC and Canadian culture generally. The network could offer itself to U.S. households, HBO-style, by subscription. Mr. O'Brien's fans are so fervent that sales would undoubtedly be brisk, meaning added revenue for the cash-strapped network and additional exposure for CBC shows in the crucial American marketplace.
As well, Mr. O'Brien would be required to stick to a Cancon quota, meaning huge publicity for Canadian actors, musicians, artists, filmmakers and celebrities. Canadians are often desperate for exposure on American networks and in American media generally - having Mr. O'Brien host a show on our soil would mean nightly appearances by Canuck talent before a sizable international demographic.
The show would also make for a huge boost in American tourism to Canada, as droves of fans would make the pilgrimage to be part of Mr. O'Brien's live studio audience.
It may sound far-fetched, but given Mr. O'Brien's current mood - he rightly feels mighty burned by the suits at NBC - he may be identifying with outsiders, underdogs and the overlooked. In other words, Canadians. Mr. O'Brien has a reputation for having a very big heart in an especially vicious business, so moving to a country with a warmer, gentler reputation may be just what he's looking for. And it will surely seem a better option than the other one making the rumour mill: Does he really want to end up on Fox with Sarah Palin?
Canada needs Conan O'Brien, and he needs a new late-night venue. This would be a marriage made in media heaven, a win-win scenario for a brilliant comedy trailblazer and a nation in dire need of a pop-culture shot in the arm.
Matthew Hays teaches courses in journalism and communication studies at Concordia University.