Conan O'Brien says goodbye


“Ladies and gentlemen, we have exactly one hour to steal everything in this studio.”

Last night, the latest Late Night War reached a cease fire. Conan O’Brien hosted his last episode of The Tonight Show, ceding the desk to previous host and keeper of all things safe and boring, Jay Leno. NBC, led by a crew of executives who have been underestimating American audiences for years (you don’t stay in last place by accident) gets their wish, and the 6’4” weirdo with the shock of red hair won’t be messing up their plans for corporate domination anymore.

So, in order to wrap up an immensely entertaining two weeks of TV, Conan went out with a bang. His final episode was a home run from beginning to end. Steve Carrell presided over his exit interview. The skeleton of a giant sloth sprayed Beluga caviar on an original Picasso. Tom Hanks came out drinking scotch ... err, cream soda. Andy got hammered. Neil Young played Coco off with a heartwarming rendition of “Long May You Run.” And to cap it off, Ronnie Van Zant doppelganger Will Ferrell, joined by Billy Gibbons, Beck, Ben Harper, Max Weinberg and the Tonight Show Band, ran through “Free Bird” while Conan took the last solo and Ferrell made out with his pregnant girlfriend. It was completely strange, unexpected, hilarious, fun and touching. It was, in about five minutes, everything Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien stood for.

This has been a rough week for fans of intelligent, surprising and, above all, funny comedy. It’s been the number one pop culture subject on my brain, and I’m far from alone. NBC forcing Conan out to re-install Leno in the 11:35 slot is a shot at everything creative, organic and fun. Leno is a tired, formulaic sap, so dedicated to mediocrity it makes my eyes bleed. For all the ways Conan could have lost his gig, to have him exit so that this lump can sit behind the desk was the worst possible outcome for so many of his supporters.

But last night, he made the absolute best of an unfortunate situation. He was so sincere that it made me cry. His jabs at Leno and his NBC overlords have been hilarious for the past two weeks for their irreverence and frustration, but at heart, Conan is still a wide-eyed kid who can’t believe his own good luck. David Letterman draws a good deal of his deadpan humor from the fact that he’s a crotchety old man, and it works. Leno has a false, demeaning everyman approach that, honestly, does not. Jimmy Fallon still looks lost. Craig Ferguson ... he’s all right.

Conan is special. He cares enough about his audience to give his absolute best every night, never resting on his laurels. He cares immensely about his staff, wrestling with NBC this past week to make sure that they were taken care of after they uprooted their lives moving from New York City to Burbank. And he’s smart enough to know that, even though his dream job is being yanked away from him prematurely, he was still able to land his dream job, just the fifth host of The Tonight Show since Steve Allen first manned the desk in 1954.

He doesn’t have it anymore. Are NBC’s shortsighted, reactionary decisions infuriating? Absolutely. Is Jay Leno’s obsession with mediocrity enraging? Completely. And is Conan’s fate anything but heartbreaking? No.

But, that will change. With his final speech, Conan proved to be the bigger man in this disgusting dance. He's truly appreciative of everything that's come his way since he first arrived in the Saturday Night Live writing room in the late 1980s. He’s ensured that his staff will be cared for, and in seven months or so, he’ll wind up back on TV one way or another.

Aside from the classic bits (Conando, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, In the Year 2000/3000, the Masturbating Bear, Gay Lincoln, Redneck Jesus, Evil Puppy ... seriously, does this list ever end?), what I’ll miss the most is the moment his name is announced, and he happily trots from backstage to his marker in front of the crowd. He hops in, points to Andy, signals to the band, smiles, waves to the crowd, and smiles again. It’s a bright, fantastic smile as he takes in the few hundred people who are on their feet to welcome him to another episode, and he always seems genuinely overwhelmed by the ordeal. It’s obvious that he takes it all to heart, and when he says that they’re going to have a great show, it’s obvious he means it. He doesn’t know how to give anything less than his best effort.

And before the show’s appropriately bizarre coda, he made an impassioned plea to everyone who’s signed on with Team Conan this month:

“Finally, I have something to say to our fans. This massive outpouring of support and passion from so many people has been overwhelming for me. The rallies, the signs, all this outrageous, goofy creativity on the internet. The fact that people have travelled long distances and camped out all night in the pouring rain — it’s pouring! It’s been pouring for days! And they’re camping out to be in our audience! Here’s what all of you have done: you have made a sad situation joyous and inspirational. So to all the people watching, I can never, ever [pauses] thank you enough for the kindness to me. I’ll think about it for the rest of my life.

“And all I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people that watch: please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you. It’s just true.”

Conan O’Brien is living proof that you can be successful doing what you love, and that it can be done well every night. His job is to make people laugh at the end of the day and send them to bed feeling good, and for 17 years through two shows, he was able to do that. It’s so easy to be cynical about how it ended, and I know I’ve been guilty of that.

He will never let himself be cynical. He’ll make us laugh again. Conan is one of the few good people left in television, and you can only keep good people down for so long.

Jan. 23, 2010

E-mail Nick Tavares at nick@staticandfeedback.com