LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Memo to Conan O’Brien: Watch your mouth at the Emmys.
If O’Brien wins Sunday night in the variety, music or comedy series category for his aborted “The Tonight Show” — a distinct possibility given the strong Hollywood and populist sentiment behind him in his public separation from NBC — the host is legally prohibited from saying whatever he wants about his former bosses during an acceptance speech.
That’s because O’Brien’s settlement deal with the network contains strict rules against making “disparaging” comments about NBC or NBC Studios, Jay Leno and NBC executives Jeff Zucker, Dick Ebersol, Jeff Gaspin and Marc Graboff.
Those limitations end September 1, but the Emmys, which air on NBC, take place three days before that deadline. The event marks one of the first times O’Brien and his former bosses will be together in the same room. A win for “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” would present a rare moment of high drama at the Emmys.
So what can O’Brien say? More than one might think.
The Hollywood Reporter has learned that O’Brien’s settlement deal describes disparaging comments as “those that are false and would be viewed by a reasonable person to be insulting or defamatory.”
The key word is “false.” O’Brien can poke fun at his former bosses or even take a shot at Leno as long as his remarks are not both inaccurate and scornful.
“He can still have a field day,” said attorney Pierce O’Donnell, who has handled employment settlements in Hollywood cases but was not involved in the O’Brien deal. “He can make fun of NBC’s ratings, its shows, as long as he’s not saying anything false.”
O’Brien left NBC in January after a wild turn of events that saw the network announcing that his “Tonight” would be bumped from 11:35 p.m. to 12:05 a.m. to make room for Leno, O’Brien publicly refusing to comply, and NBC and O’Brien’s reps working out a $45 million deal for O’Brien and staff to leave — all while the host continued to slam NBC on his show each night.
The “non-disparagement” clause in the deal was heavily negotiated and also prohibits NBC from making false and insulting remarks about O’Brien until September 1.
Since the separation, O’Brien and NBC have been careful to honor terms of the settlement. O’Brien was prevented from making any media appearances until May 1, so he sat down with CBS’ “60 Minutes” for an interview that aired May 2. He is prevented from hosting another TV program until September 1, so he took his act on the road for a 30-city live tour.
O’Donnell said the specific end date and the “false” requirement are somewhat unusual for high-profile settlements and probably reflect the leverage O’Brien had in negotiations. Because O’Brien’s settlement allows him to host another show after September 1, his reps likely wanted to make sure he could say what he wanted on a new show. O’Brien’s still-untitled TBS late-night show is set to bow in November.
Regardless, sources in the O’Brien camp said he has no plans to say anything negative about NBC or anyone else on Sunday. NBC declined to comment.