I’m sorry, Conan.
I didn’t watch your Tonight Show. At 11:35, I’m more likely to be writing about television than watching it, and for that I truly have to apologize. I was part of the problem, part of the group of people who celebrated Conan O’Brien’s rise to the Tonight Show but who never bothered to keep tuning in. I watched a few episodes early on, and enjoyed the feeling of pride that “my” host pushing out Jay Leno, but then when push came to shove I was content with knowing Conan was there.
I know it’s not my fault: even if Conan’s ratings had been incrementally better, chances are that NBC still would have made the decision to push his show back, and this whole mess would still be happening. And considering that Conan is walking away with an enormous severance package and will likely be back on our televisions within a year, it’s not as if the man himself is truly losing his job and left without a chance of success.
But there is something tragic about seeing someone robbed of doing what he loved, and robbed of doing it on the stage he always dreamed of. He left this job because he felt as if NBC was disrespecting its legacy, and like the consummate professional he is Conan showed an enormous amount of respect for both the Tonight Show’s legacy and his time at NBC in the midst of his final goodbye to the network and the show he feels he is leaving a decade too early. While no one is crying for Coco, considering the severance he received, I don’t think any of us can deny him the right to cry: his tears felt genuine, a love letter to the people who brought him to where he is and a final curtain to a run at NBC that took him from comedy writer to national sensation.
His final episode (and mine) of The Tonight Show was one hundred percent Conan, one hundred percent heartfelt, and hopefully just a small percentage of what’s to come.
What struck me most about Conan’s exit was that everyone who was there seemed genuinely excited about the prospect (except for Beck, but he’s generally not very excitable). This was especially clear with musical guest Neil Young, who was apparently the first person to call Conan when all of this appeared to be going down. After an emotional performance of “Long May You Run” that was pitch perfect for the night’s triumphant tone, Conan thanks Neil profusely but Neil was even more animated: he thanked Conan for doing so much for new music, in a loud bombastic announcement tone, and then smiled and patted him on the back.
The outpouring of support for Conan online over the past few weeks has been, to Conan, “overwhelming,” to the point where he probably isn’t sitting back wondering “why the hell weren’t you people watching?” But what’s most interesting is that it feels as if the internet is responding in the same way that Young is, or the same way that Tom Hanks does when he tells Conan that he’ll always be the host of the Tonight Show in his house (before joking that the couch is set up in the bedroom, and that he and Rita will try their best to stay up). There is this sense that people who know Conan have always felt this way, that how people connect with Conan is very different from how they connect with Jay or even someone like Letterman. He has always been the scrappy underdog, and it’s given his show a sense of fun that has never been taken for granted by Conan or his writers. This group really is one of the best crews in late night television, and they’re built a following not just in terms of recent internet chatter but in terms of people from a wide range of groups who are willing to take time to help celebrate his Tonight Show sendoff despite their busy schedules (both Hanks and Young, after all, were rushing over to CBS to film their spots in the Hope for Haiti Now Telethon).
The episode didn’t hold back from comedy: Conan got off a long list of potential uses for his brand new Tonight Show studio that included some fairly substantial digs at NBC, and Steve Carell’s “Up in the Air” bit was quite clever and played entirely for comic effect. However, the show never felt like it was making light of the situation: while Conan joked once that he hadn’t rehearsed because he didn’t care, he later made sure to correct himself and note that he and his crew cared very deeply. The package of clips from the show’s short run was like that of a much longer show, and its “To Be Continued” was a hopeful message for the future. And when Conan eventually gave his farewell address, his plea to the fans who made t-shirts and changed their Avatars to reflect their allegiance was that they not become cynical in life, believing that nothing ever turns out (whether it be your dreams of hosting the tonight show or your dream that you could convince people you look like Conan O’Brien) in life. Like Conan said, nothing is ever exactly like you believe it will be, and accepting those changes and finding a way to try hard and pursue your dreams is all that you can do to right that ship.
It was a farewell message that had me tearing up, I won’t lie about that, and it evolved into a rollicking sendoff as Will Ferrell is joined by Beck, Ben Harper, Billy Gibbons and Ferrell’s real-life wife Viveca Paulson (who I had to google to recognize: I expect there were a lot of “who was the hippie woman during Conan freebird?” searches) joined Conan and Max Weinberg & the Tonight Show band to say goodbye to the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien with Lynyrd Skynryd’s epic “Freebird.” And it was everything you wanted to see as the final image of this program: Conan loving life playing guitar beside Billy Gibbons and Ben Harper, Max Weinberg bashing away at the drums, Will Ferrell filling a prescription for some more cowbell, and the kind of scene that felt so very, very “right.” And while some could argue that Conan struggled to find his tone at the 11:30 timeslot, and that he was never quite as great as he was before, that final moment was the absolutely perfect note to go out on. It was joyous rather than sombre, and a reminder that if there’s anything Conan O’Brien does better than anyone (Ferguson would be closest) in late night it’s having fun doing something he loves.
And while I might not be the kind of person who watches late night television, when I do that is what I want to see, and I look forward to being able to one day soon feel comfortable that somewhere, whether in a studio in Los Angeles or New York or in a 7/11 parking lot, Conan O’Brien will be having fun doing what he loves to do.
It’s a qualified tragedy that it won’t be on the Tonight Show, but the past week has been a love letter to his fans and to his art form, and perhaps this was all for the best at the end of the day. After all, we wouldn’t want to be cynical.
- At first I figured it was odd for Young not to be involved in any sort of final jam session, but then I realized that a) he had to run to the telethon and b) it’s “Freebird,” and that might be awkward.
- I thought Andy Richter got to have a lot of fun here: while the show didn’t do any of the regular comedy bits that might be dead as of a move to another network (Year 3000, for example), he got to have some nice banter throughout, and his “I just love shredding” tore down the house.
- My big question leading out of this: usually the production company is responsible for submitting to the Emmys, so I have to wonder if there is even a possibility that Conan’s writing staff doesn’t end up winning an Emmy this year. Sure, Jon Stewart wins a lot, but I think that the voters will want to give one final “Screw you!” to NBC and make the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien the only show to ever win every Writing Emmy it was ever nominated for. And frankly, if you show them tonight’s episode, they could take Program as well.