O'Brien Speeds Toward Last Show

Friday guest Tom Hanks: 'Flag on me with CoCo.'

Jan. 21, 2010 — -- Suspense is building over how outgoing "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien will spend what is expected to be his last night at NBC.

O'Brien has all but admitted that Friday will be his final show, joking during his monologue Tuesday night that he was "just three days away from the biggest drinking binge in history."

The show announced that Friday's guests will be Oscar winner Tom Hanks and comic actor Will Ferrell, who was O'Brien's first guest when he made his "Tonight Show" debut in June.

On his Twitter page, Hanks, who was originally slated to appear on the show Tuesday night, posted a message about his upcoming appearance: "Flag on me with CoCo tonight! Going on Friday's Big Show. What WILL happen? Tune in. Hanx."

A woman answering the ticket hotline for the "Tonight Show" this afternoon said that she was not booking tickets for shows after this week. "There's no official word that we are off the air, but that's the expectation," she said.

In a post Tuesday to the show's official Web site, a "Tonight Show" staff blogger said the "days are definitely speeding up around here."

"Things are starting to move very fast. The scenery outside the window is starting to blend together," wrote Aaron Bleyaert. "Who knows what will happen once this coaster plunges over the edge?"

Nostalgic fans who might never see the show live can still buy tickets on eBay, where one Arizona-based watcher listed a "Tonight Show" ticket supposedly autographed by flame-haired O'Brien for $6,000. As of this afternoon, no one had bid on it.

All eyes have been on O'Brien in recent days after the former "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" host rejected a plan by NBC to move the "Tonight Show" to 12:05 a.m. to make room for an 11:35 show hosted by former "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno.

Leno's own 10 p.m. show, "The Jay Leno Show," was canceled after flagging ratings and complaints from local affiliates that the show provided a weak lead-in to local newscasts. Viewership for O'Brien's own show, until recently, was also down sharply compared to the days when Leno hosted.

Conan Takes on NBC

Leno and O'Brien have both taken shots at NBC and, in some cases, at each other since NBC announced its late-night shuffle. But it's been O'Brien's bitterly comic jabs at the peacock network -- Tuesday night, O'Brien went bilingual in his attacks, saying in Spanish that "NBC is run by brainless sons of goats who eat money and crap trouble" -- that seem to have driven his ratings higher and encouraged passionate fans, including hundreds who held rallies in four U.S. cities earlier this week in support of the host many refer to by the nickname "CoCo."

NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker defended the network's decision to shift Leno back into the 11:35 p.m. time slot he held for 17 years before O'Brien took over "The Tonight Show."

"From a financial standpoint, this is the right move," Zucker said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "We didn't want to do it, because we wanted to keep Conan. But we're going to be fine, even paying Conan to go away."

He told the newspaper he was surprised at the "nasty" turn the shake-up had taken.

"We were not surprised that Conan was disappointed in having his show back up a half hour. But we were very surprised and disappointed at how nasty it turned," he said.

Negotiations Between Conan O'Brien, NBC Ongoing

According to O'Brien's camp, the latest drama between O'Brien and NBC revolved around stalled negotiations over O'Brien's exit package -- estimated to be between $30 and $40 million -- and how much his staff of some 200 people will be compensated after the show ends. Many "Tonight Show" employees lived in New York and worked for O'Brien's former show before moving to California to work on "The Tonight Show."

"The main issue at this stage is how well they're planning on taking care of the people who are out of work, and that's Conan's main concern and that's the focus of all negotiations at this point," Gavin Polone, O'Brien's manager, told ABCNews.com on Tuesday.

But NBC has criticized Polone's portrayal of the negotiations, calling it a "PR ploy" and arguing that O'Brien's decisions, not NBC's, will leave his staff jobless.

"It was Conan's decision to leave NBC that resulted in nearly 200 of his staffers being out of work," the network said Tuesday in a written statement. "We have already agreed to pay millions of dollars to compensate every one of them. This latest posturing is nothing more than a PR ploy."

Leno explained his side of the story on his show Monday night.

The former (and apparently future) "Tonight Show" host said he'd tried to avoid doing a show in prime time but was convinced by NBC that it could work and that he would be able to keep his staff of 175.

Four months later, he said, network executives informed him they were canceling his show but told him they wouldn't let him out of his contract because he was still "a valuable asset" to the company.

He said he agreed to host his show at 11:35 p.m. after NBC "almost guaranteed" to him that O'Brien would accept a "Tonight Show" shift to 12:05 a.m.

With reports from ABC News' Brian Braiker.