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Jeff Zucker and Conan O’ Brien’s heated history

by Danielle Berrin

January 20, 2010 | 6:15 pm

The raging battle over Conan O’Brien’s forced termination from Late Night reeks of ancient rivalry.

Turns out, Conan and his arch nemesis, NBC titan Jeff Zucker were staunch competitors back at Harvard, where Zucker was editor of the Crimson newspaper and Conan ran the humor magazine Lampoon.

Apparently, the rival publications routinely played pranks on each other and one year, Conan decided to break into the Crimson and steal that day’s run of papers. Zucker was furious.

CNN business writer Patricia Sellers recounts the incident on her blog, Postcards, using an old interview with Conan from her 2007 profile of Zucker for Fortune magazine.

“Jeff went nuclear right away,” O’Brien recalled. “He called the police. Not the campus police, which were the kind and gentle police. He called the Cambridge police.”

O’Brien soon found himself spread-eagled, cuffed, and listening to his Miranda rights — in the hands of a Cambridge cop.

“I remember thinking that Jeff is a different species than I am,” O’Brien said, of course milking the story for comic effect. “That species could easily rip my throat open.”

Well, Zucker is one of the most competitive guys you’ll ever meet, He did not apologize to O’Brien. “Why would I?” Zucker told me, grinning. “He’s the guy who started it.”

This time around, it’s quite the opposite. Zucker’s ingenious idea to put Leno into primetime brutally backfired and his equally ingenious solution was to push out the little guy and alienate his network’s audience.

Now, the likable and towheaded talk show host has retaliated with something worse than legal haranguing (though there’s been that, too) and that is: populism.

Earlier this week, scores of Conan fans took to the streets and rallied on his behalf, despite the fact that Zucker’s plans weren’t likely to reverse. Not to mention, the story’s shamed forsaken hero would still go home with a $40 million paycheck.

Conan’s strategy—that is, coming off as a naive little boy who just had his pail and shovel snatched away by the kindergarten bully—is paying off in droves. Because in the end, he’ll walk away with a pretty sweet deal, and get a new show on another network a year from now.

And Jeff Zucker will still be the arrogant, overpaid network boss who has to sell a badly damaged product.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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