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Late-Night Watch: It's not over 'til the skinny guy sings, and he just did

January 22, 2010 | 12:35 am

When Barry Manilow, looking for all the world like the love child of Rod Stewart and Barbara Walters, came out and sang the theme from "Love Story," I think we all knew it was time to move on.

Like the rainstorms pounding Southern California, the Conan O’Brien pity party must come to an end. If there are people out there happy that Jay Leno is returning to late night as host of “The Tonight Show,” they’re keeping pretty mum. But honestly, O’Brien is walking away not only with more money than most of us will see in three lifetimes, but also the air of being much more wildly popular than he actually is. Or at least than he was, before NBC decided to solve the debacle of Leno at 10 by reinstating Leno at 11:30. Since the late-night wars began, O’Brien’s ratings have soared.

Coco will be just fine, as will we all.

Last night, O’Brien acknowledged that the news he was leaving NBC was at long last official, making everything that followed essentially a denouement. He gamely kept up last night's joke about running up the tab on the show by doing very expensive skits -- this time it involved a thoroughbred horse in a mink snuggy watching restricted NFL football -- but watching Robin Williams sing an "Irish" tribute to the host, replete with a dozen bleeps and and digitially removed hand gestures, it became clear that “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” is over.

“You’ve undone weeks of legal wrangling,” O’Brien joked to Williams when he was done.

Yet for all the exhortations that O'Brien was going to use the final two shows to “have a lot of fun on television,” the fascinating hysteria that fueled both host and guests for the last week or so seems to have evaporated. No last-minute reprieve from the governor, no surprise appearance by an apologetic Jay Leno, no announcement of NBC CEO Jeff Zucker’s resignation would be saving the day. Reciting a list of the "separation contract" details, O’Brien took a few desultory jabs at his soon-to-be former bosses -- “I must return the Etch-a-Sketch my contract was written on. I’m not allowed to make fun of NBC programming, I must let the programming speak for itself” -- but even then his delivery lacked conviction. It’s tough to man the barricades after you’ve accepted the separation check; you might smudge the ink.

Still, the marines had been called, and so they came. Williams was by turns manic and soulful, calling O’Brien “a good man;” Pee Wee Herman told the story of an entertaining giraffe and the peacock who once loved him; and Ben Stiller pointed out that the Leno/O’Brien mess not only cost NBC millions of dollars and jobs, it was just, you know, not green.

“That’s good for the environment,” Stiller observed, when O’Brien waxed sentimental for his new and costly set. “Here are some tips: Use energy-efficient light bulbs, don’t use so much water and don’t build $50-million sets you only use for seven months.”

And then there was the musical guest. No doubt Manilow was marking the recent passing of “Love Story” author Erich Segal, but that never came up, so we were forced to consider the song only in its current context. “How long does it last? Can love be measured by the hours in a day?”

No, but the percentage of our lives that we are willing to devote to the plight of Conan O’Brien or NBC or even late-night television can. 

-- Mary McNamara