Late-Night Watch: Conan O'Brien signs off
It's all over but the packing. Conan O'Brien has breathed his last as a "Tonight Show" host, though not necessarily as a talk-show host; indeed it's hard to picture him as anything else. (His writers have gotten some mileage in recent days out of that attempt.) Into just what form he may regenerate is news for another day, when his end-of-contract contract allows him to work again. This disagreement over whether a show that starts at 12:05 a.m. may properly be called "The Tonight Show" will cost NBC a lot of money, but at least the network get to keep the Masturbating Bear and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
"Like everything in life, the fun has to come to an end," the host said at the top of Friday's show, "a decade too early."
Still, there was an hour to go of O'Brien's last stand, "exactly one hour to steal every single item in this studio."
Everything at the top was protracted in a don't-let-this-end way; the shouts of "Conan! Conan! Conan!," the orchestra's suspended last chord, drummer Max Weinberg's final cadenza -- even sidekick Andy Richter's introductory "Conaaaan O'Briiiiiiieeen" -- seemed especially, specially long. The host had to fight to contain the ovation. A party atmosphere reigned over the hour, which was a particularly funny episode of late-night TV, but also heartfelt and warm. His guests, who were clearly also his friends, were Tom Hanks, who appeared in the first week of the Conan "Tonight Show," and remembered him as a young pup writing for "SNL," and Will Ferrell, who also appeared on the last night of his "Late Night," not so very long ago.
There was an essential difference between this last show and that one, of course. Sentimentally speaking, leaving "Late Night" represented only a goodbye to New York and a studio; the old gang was not breaking up, the most fabled franchise in television comedy was beckoning on the horizon, and they were taking all their intellectual property with them. Friday's show had the tang of finality, and of real occasion -- remarkably so, when you consider the brevity of his "Tonight Show" tenure, less so when you consider, as O'Brien paused to do late in the hour, the length of his association with NBC.
The pre-guest comedy included another expensive (but not really, as O'Brien admitted) bit on NBC's dime, this time of "a rare fossil skeleton of a giant ground sloth ... spraying Beluga caviar on an original Picasso." It was the sort of surrealist assemblage you don't get often on network television, and certainly won't be getting on the new old Leno "Tonight Show." Possible future uses for the studio were considered, including as a "storage facility for apology notes to NBC stockholders," and a plan to "leave the studio cold and empty and rename it World's Largest Metaphor for NBC Progamming." But he stopped short of calling his bosses "morons," as he did the other night, and didn't mention Leno at all.
There was a supposedly required "exit interview conducted by an NBC employee," who turned out to be Steve Carrell. "First question," said Carrell, all business. "Would you describe your experience here at NBC positive, very positive or extremely positive?" Finally, he put O'Brien's NBC ID badge into a shredder.
Hanks, who gave O'Brien his current nickname (Coco) strolled out wearing sunglasses and carrying two drinks, one for O'Brien. "It's been some week, Coco," he said, as if wrung out. (The drinks were played as Scotch, revealed as cream soda.) Neil Young, who had called asking to perform, sang a raggedy acoustic version of "Long May You Run": "We've been through some things together/With trunks of memories still to come." It's a song about his car, but the sentiment still applied.
It was anything but a long run in the end. And yet O'Brien forced this moment -- surely in the hope that by refusing to move his show after midnight the masses would rise up behind him and show NBC the error of its ways, but surely also in the knowledge that they might not. Ultimately, it was a choice, his choice, and for all the abuse O'Brien and his supporters, on the streets and on the Web, have heaped on the network in days past, he took the time toward the end of the night to honor them.
"I've worked with NBC for over 20 years," he said, not insincerely. "We have our differences right now, and yes, we're going to go our separate ways. But this company has been my home for all my adult life. ... I want to thank NBC for making it all possible."
Leaving the show, he said, is "the hardest thing I have ever had to do," but "despite this sense of loss I really feel that this should be a happy moment. Every comedian dreams of hosting 'The Tonight Show,' and for seven months I got to do it." Addressing himself to his viewers, and especially to "young people," he said, "Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism -- for the record, 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."
As proof of that, he directed our attention to Will Ferrell, dressed as Lynyrd Skynyrd's late Ronnie Van Zandt, his pregnant wife by his side, out in front of a band that included Weinberg, Beck, Ben Harper and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and, after a moment, O'Brien too strapped on a guitar. They played "Free Bird," whose lyrics begin, "If I leave here tomorrow/Would you still remember me?" They played it loud, and they played it long, and Conan got a solo. It doesn't get any less cynical than that.
-- Robert Lloyd
[Corrected at 1:02 a.m.: A previous version of this post referred to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog as Insult the Comedy Dog.
Corrected at 7:45 a.m.: An earlier version of this post, in the first reference to O'Brien's previous show, "Late Night," called it "Late Show."]