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A Farewell to Conan

Conan O’Brien’s final Conan show on TBS involved being serenaded by Jack Black, an enthusiastic studio audience and Conan on stage with his longtime sidekick Andy Richter thanking his fans, his family and his staff. He closed out his late night tenure with An encouraging message to the audience to try and do what they love with people that they love. 

As the curtain comes down on Conan’s late night talk show on TBS this week a piece of late night lore will go with it. Conan O’Brien has been a piece of the late night talk show puzzle for nearly three decades, starting on NBC in 1993 when he took over for David Letterman. He is many things to many people. Some think of him as a sympathetic figure who got screwed out of The Tonight Show, others see him as a seasoned comedian who got his start writing on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. Many marvel at his success bursting on the scene in the 90s as a total unknown in the late night world, filling in big shoes and carving out his own niche with recurring characters and edgy bits. 

When he started out in late night no one knew who Conan was, but it was clear that he knew and understood comedy, something that did not take long for that to come out on his show. The key ingredient to Conan’s comedy was surprisingly simple: He stayed true to himself. He embraced his nerdiness. He was self-deprecating. He found the humor in every situation. The celebrity guest interview was a big part of TV in the 90s and Conan embraced the good and the bad that came with it. Early on he developed a playful flirtatious back and forth with guests. It consisted of a trademark growl and animal-like clawing that teetered between entertaining and knowingly goofy. Stars like Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who became a recurring guest, ate it up.  

No matter what happened on the show Conan found a way to make it work. Whether it was a joke that fell flat, a skit that encountered a technical glitch –  if something went awry Conan would jump in with something witty and find the laugh. Throw in arguably the best band in late night history, a top-notch writing staff, and recurring bits like ‘Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’ and it wasn’t long before Conan became a force in late night scene. An example of a sketch that probably best sums up the range of Conan’s comedic talents was when he played ‘Old Timey Baseball.’

For a certain generation the world stopped at 12:30 AM to watch David Letterman’s antics. With Conan’s arrival fans were getting what felt like the second coming – capturing Letterman’s wit while bringing something completely fresh.  

Through it all Conan stayed true to himself. He never got snarky, lazy, or egotistical. He continued to be self-deprecating and maintained a subversive and somewhat ‘we don’t really belong in show business’ tone to the show.  

His career hit a crossroads at ‘The Tonight Show.’ NBC tapped Conan to replace Jay Leno for the prestigious gig but then shockingly kept Leno at the network, offering him his own nightly show in prime time. In my opinion, NBC should have moved on from Leno entirely, but they botched the whole thing up. The situation got messy and Conan left NBC, eventually landing at TBS. 

NBC had given Conan his dream job and then ripped it away from him. It was then that Conan did something that remains an underrated part of his legacy. He never went negative or painted himself as the victim. On his final segment on ‘The Tonight Show’ he thanked the fans for their support and told them they had made a sad situation joyous and inspirational. He then closed his time at NBC with this message to everyone to not be cynical.

“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. I’m telling you amazing things will happen.” It was a classy upbeat way of ending his short tenure on ‘The Tonight Show.’ In Conan fashion he stayed true to himself and showed gratitude, humility and appreciation in the most unfortunate of circumstances. 

Conan’s move from late night has been a long time coming. The talk show format has changed a lot in the past 20 years. As late night host Seth Meyers recently told Awards Radar about late night TV:

“We wanted to get people who did things that we didn’t already have in the writing staff….diversity of styles.” There is less focus on the celebrity interview and more focus on digital bits and video clips that can go up on a show’s YouTube channel.  

Conan has evolved too. He has taken his comedic talents into the podcast arena with great success and has announced plans for a future show on HBO Max. 28 years in late night TV is a legacy that should be celebrated and not forgotten. As everyone celebrates the end of an era in late night TV let us not forget the legacy Conan leaves behind as a late night comic who went from an unknown to a superstar host all while remaining true to himself.       

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Written by Andy Mattison

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