Conan Ends Late Night Run Gracefully

There was emotion, some very funny clip montages, chunks of the set given away to every studio audience member, hugs and the freeing of Abe Vigoda.  All in all, the final Late Night With Conan O’Brien was a fitting end to a throughly surprising run.  Who knew that the tall, red-headed Catholic kid from Boston, with almost no previous on-camera experience and no stand-up background, would last longer (over 16 years) than the show’s predecessor, David Letterman.  (The original Late Night ran from February 1982 to June 1993.)
When Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels (and the executive producer of Late Night through his Broadway Video production company) convinced NBC to take a chance on one of his writers, who had occasionally popped up in bit parts during sketches and would also write for The Simpsons, it was a real risk.  His selection was an almost complete unknown, most certainly not the obvious choice to replace the iconic Letterman.  (Dana Carvey seemed more suitable but he turned down the gig.)
You would never know how great a choice he was after watching his awful debut on September 13, 1993.  There was no structured monologue and interviews with John Goodman and Drew Barrymore were forgettable.  (The only memorable moment occurred when Goodman was given a First Guest medallion and his picture was instantaneously snapped with O’Brien by photographers who appeared out of nowhere.)  And why did he need buddy Andy Richter (originally on-board as one of the writers) as a sidekick, anyway?  Neither were delivering the goods.
After that terrible start, I avoided the show like the plague, expecting it to be cancelled within a short while.  Reviews at the time were brutal.  The show would only be renewed every 13 weeks, not annually.  According to this New York Times story, NBC executives actually did pull the plug but remarkably, changed their minds.  That decision had to be a wake-up call for O’Brien who had to learn the hard way, through trial and error, how to be funny and connect with his audience.  By the end of the decade, after not watching the show for years, I remember catching a remote set in either an airport or bus terminal.  One guy was giving Conan a hard time but the always affable Bostonian assured him that the show was funny now. 
He wasn’t lying.  I began watching the show more often.  O’Brien and Richter had found their natural, comedic rhythm with themselves and their guests.  On the final Late Night, Richter made a return appearance (something he’s done for years to promote his movies and TV shows after leaving the show, albeit on a touching note, in 2000) to offer his congratulations and support to his old friend.  Although he’s had some success on the big screen, you can’t help but wonder if Richter made a big mistake. 
When he left, I wondered how O’Brien would adapt.  He ended up bantering with his superb and good-natured bandleader, Max Weinberg, and incorporating a number of Lettermanesque and Carsonian mannerisms.  Lots of mugging, deadpan stares, spontaneous fits of laughter and awareness of the audience’s reactions to various bits and quips, especially if something bombed or received a weird response (booing followed by clapping, for instance).  O’Brien has a quick wit (he did do improv with The Groundlings for a couple of years) that has served him well during those miscues which ultimately made the show funnier.
While watching the clip montages not only during the final episode but throughout this final week, one thing became evident to me.  O’Brien is far more confident of his timing and spontaneous jokes outside of the studio than within Rockefeller Center, even though he has evolved into a very good interviewer and confident joke teller.  Rewatching some of the best bits from his trip to Finland, I was reminded of how good he is when he interacts with complete strangers.  He has a genuine affection for these people, especially his fans, and they frequently reciprocate those feelings.  His laughter to their unscripted comments is genuine, not forced.  He understands instinctively that those moments enhance the show and he’s generous enough to allow them to air.  His “outside” comedy is more silly, teasing and playful than the biting sarcasm he reserves for studio bits and monologue jokes inside Studio 6A.  There’s a warmness to him that someone like Bill Maher would have to fake.
Saving the gracious sentimentality for the end, O’Brien allowed comedy to dominate his last show.  Poon hound John Mayer offered a funny, sarcastic song via videotape about how Los Angeles, the location for The Tonight Show, will eat him alive.  There was O’Brien’s favourite remote:  the time he checked out an accurate recreation of an 1864 baseball game.  (Love the fake moustache and sideburns.)  Will Ferrell doing that disturbingly amusing leprechaun dance of his.  And lots of funny, old clips.
The only moment we could’ve been spared was that dreadful White Stripes song.  One of O’Brien’s all-time favourites, he definitely appreciated the moment more than I did.  It went on too long and was the only low point in a terrific finale.
For the remaining ten minutes, O’Brien spoke from the heart thanking a whole bunch of people for his success.  He nearly broke down a couple of times while talking about Lorne Michaels who believed in him from day one and his family.  Most endearing were the shout-outs to his parents (who were there in the audience but not shown) who taught him that making it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have any character and his brother who watched every single episode (nearly 3000, it should be noted) and always offered his support even when O’Brien knew he wasn’t always on his game.  The unscripted monologue was reminiscent of Howard Stern’s final speech to his terrestrial radio audience:  sincere, deeply appreciative, moving and hopeful for another act in show business.
After signing off, O’Brien went up to the audience to hand out hacked off pieces of the set, a number of whom he embraced as the credits rolled.  You got the feeling he wanted to hug everybody who has ever supported the program.
The good news is that he’s moving on to tackle the holy grail of talk shows in June.  The bad news is that he’s still not the lead-off guy for NBC.  Who knows how Jay Leno’s prime-time chatfest will respond with audiences when it debuts in either August or September.  And who knows what kinds of things O’Brien will do an hour earlier.  (Hopefully, he won’t change too much.  He’s found his funny.)  If history is any guide, O’Brien will be in better shape.  David Letterman has adapted nicely over at CBS the last 16 years.  But how many 10 p.m. talk shows do you remember succeeding?
It also helps that O’Brien did a good job hosting The Emmys this decade which meant that prime-time audiences not familiar with his late night program got a chance to sample his comedy and may check out his new gig.  It may take time to adjust, but if anything, he has to proven to be adaptable.  He’s in the prime of his career and really has nothing left to prove now.  Whatever happens with his Tonight Show stint, it won’t detract from his unique legacy as Late Night’s second host.
I have only one request:  bring back The Slip Nutz!
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 21, 2009
5:29 p.m.
Published in: on February 21, 2009 at 5:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

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