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NBC Or Conan O’Brien: Who Owns The Masturbating Bear?

Negotiations between Conan O’Brien and NBC recently hit a snag over Tonight Show staff compensation, as the $40 million or so NBC is reportedly paying Conan not to do The Tonight Show apparently has the network a bit reluctant to shell out anything more. However, even if and when the two sides work that issue out, another complication, referenced by O’Brien on last night’s show, looms – intellectual property.

As NBC sees it, if Conan leaves the network, his signature bits (ex. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, seen here in one of the best bits from Conan’s short-lived Tonight Show) shouldn’t just leave with him – they want to keep another network from reaping the benefits. And if this whole process sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an exact replay of what the network did with David Letterman when he left NBC.

Letterman had fun with the intellectual property issue in his first show on CBS, even enlisting Tom Brokaw to join in on the joke. Last night, Conan had some intellectual-property-based fun of his own, albeit without any direct potshots at NBC:

“Isn’t it great to live in a country where a cigar-smoking dog puppet and a bear that masturbates are considered intellectual property?”

He followed that up by leading the crowd in a “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chant – he really is having fun with his show’s impending demise. The intellectual property issue, however, isn’t so much fun – although if history is any indication, NBC is the side that will come up empty.

Keyboardist/Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer headed what was called “The World’s Most Dangerous Band” on Late Night, which NBC claimed as intellectual property. The simple solution: on CBS, Shaffer leads a band known as the “CBS Orchestra” (with many of the same members as his NBC group). Clearly, Letterman came out ahead here – not only did the band remain intact, but the “CBS Orchestra” name is yet another dig at NBC: Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show band was called the “NBC Orchestra.” In addition, NBC put in intellectual property claims on Letterman’s signature Top Ten List (this underwent the dramatic CBS name change to “Late Show Top Ten”), and the character Larry “Bud” Melman (on CBS he was referred to by the actor’s actual name, Calvert DeForest).

So what will become of Triumph and the Masturbating Bear (the latter of whom hasn’t been seen…doing what he does since Late Night)? Will Conan pull a Letterman and try to get away with slightly altering the names, leading to a FOX show with “The Bear That Pleasures Himself” and “The Dog Puppet That Makes Fun of People”? (Triumph is portrayed by Conan’s first head writer/longtime Saturday Night Live writer/TV Funhouse creator Robert Smigel and makes many non-Conan-related appearances, so NBC may not have a say in that character’s future.) Most likely, “NBC’s intellectual property” will somehow find its way into whatever Conan’s next endeavor may be, continuing this bizarre repetition of late-night history.

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