When you think of great writing lessons, you usually don’t think of late-night TV hosts. But Conan O’Brien’s “People of Earth” letter was a pitch-perfect response to a crisis situation. It became big news and set the tone for everything that happened afterwards in the NBC/Conan/Leno debacle. And it offers lessons for anyone who needs to put a public face on a shitty situation.

A closer look
The note starts off light by addressing readers as the “People of Earth.” Then he declares himself lucky.

I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I’ve been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I’ve been absurdly lucky.

“Don’t feel sorry for me” is a great way to endear yourself to people in a time of trouble. Though this is obviously nowhere near a life-and-death situation, the approach here is vaguely reminiscent of Lou Gehrig telling a stadium of fans that, despite his illness, he considers himself “the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”

Conan then lays out an argument that is based on the legacy of the Tonight Show as opposed to himself.

I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show…My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.

Now it’s about history, tradition, and Johnny instead of just some celeb moaning about being wronged.

He closes by admitting that he has no idea where things will go from here.

There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next.

Instead of playing hardball, he plays heartfelt. And the honesty worked. People rallied to his side and Team Coco was born.

The backstory
Now the behind-the-scenes story of how this letter came to be is coming to light. According to “The Unsocial Network,” which looks at the Conan/Leno showdown, it started when Conan’s team first learned what NBC was up to. They reached out to “the best, toughest” litigator they knew, Patty Glaser, and she got together with Conan and his team.

Glaser looked across the room to where Conan was sitting and asked him, “What do you want to do?”

His chest muscles were so constricted, Conan wondered briefly if he might be having a heart attack. “What I want to do,” he said, haltingly, his voice rough and raw, “is something that all of you are going to tell me I can’t do.”

He had their full attention now, all eyes pinned to him. “I want to write a statement that says exactly how I feel about it. You guys are going to tell me that I’m giving up all my leverage if I’m supposed to go to another network or something, but I can’t wait. I don’t want to play games here”…

He described how much the show meant to him, the legacy of Carson, the offers he had passed up to get this chance, and how losing it would be crushing—and unfair. Because they were never really given a chance.

The words came freely; he composed them on the spot. But they flowed, syntax perfect, no hesitation between sentences. His voice grew softer, even more strained with emotion when he got to the core of his message: he could not accept a postponement in a nightly habit Americans had participated in and shared for nearly six decades; he would not be an accomplice to the destruction that this idea of NBC’s might inflict on the greatest franchise in television history. If it truly came to this, if NBC would actually force him to decide whether to give up his dream or play a role in undermining a cultural landmark, then maybe it would be better for him to find someplace else to work, someplace that prized the art of late-night television more than NBC now apparently did.

When Conan finished, his group sat silent. Jeff Ross, his own eyes welling up, looked around and saw no dry eyes on the Conan team. Patty Glaser finally broke the silence. “I like it,” she said. She paused, then said definitively, “Let’s do it.”

Her quick assent was the last thing Conan expected to hear, but it stunned—and disconcerted—Jeff Ross. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. “Really? We’re gonna do this?”

“Why not?” Glaser said. “It’s from his heart. It’s what he feels.” She turned back to Conan. “Why don’t you write it, and we’ll look at it.”

That was all Conan needed to hear.

At home, he gushed it out almost all at once to Liza before sitting down at the computer to write. But he struggled. The formality of actually typing the words presented unexpected mental roadblocks, and he kept getting stuck. When he told Liza, she said, “When you talk about it, it’s so clear. So I’ll just sit at the computer and you just walk around and say it.”

He dictated; Liza typed; he re-wrote. He tossed out as the salutation of his letter “People of Earth.” He was a comedy writer, after all. He figured he would change it later, until Liza said she liked it and urged him, “Leave it in”…

The entire Conan group, now nine strong, counting Glaser and her several associates, gathered in The Tonight Show conference room again that morning, ready to consider the message Conan wanted to deliver to the people of the planet. The sleepless Conan got in early as well and settled into his chair at the end of the table. Ross had printouts of the statement in hand for Glaser and her group to read as soon as they sat down.

One of Glaser’s associates started reading and immediately set to lawyering up the language, making suggestions out loud.

“Leave it alone,” Glaser commanded. “It’s perfect. It’s him.” It laid out Conan’s point of view unequivocally, but without compromising his legal options. Nothing in there overtly said he was quitting, so he could not be accused of forsaking his contractual obligations.

The noon hour approached. Each person around the conference table gave the statement one last read, checking for potential land mines. “O.K.,” Glaser said. “Let’s send it out.”

Great story. Interesting how it just rolled off the top of his head and how he had to talk it out as opposed to actually writing it.

And I love the part where her colleague starts to “lawyer up” the language and Glaser commands him to leave it alone. So many lawyers seem to think exclusively about minimizing risk so kudos to Glazer for seeing the bigger picture and encouraging Conan to be himself.

Conan’s final show closed with a nice grace note too: He told fans not to be cynical.

All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

This whole chain of events was handled in a classy way. He stayed away from cynicism, legal posturing, and PR flackery. He came across as sincere and heartfelt. And that’s a big reason why he received such a huge outpouring of support.

Random related fact: One of the first posts ever here at Signal vs. Noise featured Conan’s 2000 Commencement Speech at Harvard. So I guess we’ve come full circle.