Thoughts On the Conan O'Brien Finale

Jaime Weinman: 'Given a choice between this and the Jim/Pam musical montage, the Conan/Andy one made me tear up more'

As I wait for the last Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien to begin, for some strange reason I have this song running through my head, sung (sort of) by Katharine Hepburn in Alan Jay Lerner’s musical about the life and career of Gabrielle Chanel. Who knows why?

Coco, Coco
Hoping too high
Fell down from the sky
And started to cry.

It’s the end
Of Coco, Coco,
Where is a friend
To trust and depend upon?

This isn’t really a live-blog, but here are some thoughts on the show as I watch it, when/if thoughts occur to me.

– NBC released transcripts of Conan’s opening and closing monologue before the show even started, somewhat lessening his ability to surprise us.

– I think one of the reasons the show has been so much fun in the last couple of weeks is that Conan gets to spend most of his time talking about himself. Leno is the kind of comedian who is least comfortable talking about himself and most comfortable talking about other people; even when he was good, he was an observational comic, meaning that (like his friend Jerry Seinfeld) he stands outside and looks at the follies of other people. Conan is often at his worst when making fun of other people or noting the mundane details of everyday living; he’s at his best making fun of himself, casting himself as the sheepish, tall red-haired weirdo who’s not comfortable in his own skin. The last two weeks have freed him up because he’s mostly free from his responsibility to be an all-knowing social observer.

– We now get a long musical montage of Conan Tonight Show moments, threatening to turn this into NBC’s second clip show in as many nights. Given a choice between this and the Jim/Pam musical montage, the Conan/Andy one made me tear up more.

– Steve Carell is the first of the surprise guests, to give Conan an “exit interview” (“did anything trigger your decision to leave?”). Accompanied as he is by applause from the audience and Conan shouting “Steve Carell!” as if he didn’t expect to see him, this is starting to remind me very strongly of one of those ’70s Variety specials.

– Here comes Tom Hanks. Not very likely he’ll revive his old line about “the big breakup talk,” appropriate though it would be in these circumstances, but one can always hope.

– I had not realized that Hanks was the guy who came up with the nickname “Coco.” But that’s something he should definitely be proud of.

– Coco calls for a commercial break after what seems like about two minutes’ worth of segment. I should check to see how long these shows actually are now compared to episodes from the past; late-night and daytime shows have always been shorter than prime time, but it’s obvious that they are even shorter now than they used to be. (And I’ll stop now lest this become an entire post about show timings.)

– I haven’t thought much about what makes somebody a reliably good talk show guest, but one thing that is common to both of tonight’s big guests, Hanks and Ferrell, is that they combine movie stardom with strong TV roots. They have the authority and glamour that comes with being movie stars; people who are primarily TV stars aren’t as valuable to talk shows (even when, as with Carell, they do a lot of movies in the off-season) because we see them on TV all the time. But at the same time they haven’t cut themselves off from the informality of TV performance, the way Will Smith has.

– Commercial break. A little poem that I’ve made up, mostly because I wanted to use this first rhyme:

NBC has overthrown an
Oddball red-haired host named Conan.
All because he was a sucker
Who believed the word of Zucker.
Conan hopes he’ll get some payback
If they flop by bringing Jay back.

– Neil Young is on. I hate to say this, but I can no longer see him on a talk show and not expect him to sing “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” or something like it. That really is the best recurring segment Jimmy Fallon has come up with so far.

– Conan’s big closing monologue now, the heartfelt part. Here’s the transcript (where possible I’ve added in some things he said that weren’t in the original transcript):

Before we end this rodeo, a few things need to be said. There has been a lot of speculation in the press about what I legally can and can’t say about NBC.  To set the record straight, tonight I am allowed to say anything I want. And what I want to say is this: between my time at Saturday Night Live, The Late Night Show, and my brief run here on The Tonight Show, I have worked with NBC for over twenty years.  Yes, we have our differences right now and yes, we’re going to go our separate ways.  But this company has been my home for most of my adult life.  I am enormously proud of the work we have done together, and I want to thank NBC for making it all possible.

Walking away from The Tonight Show is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Making this choice has been enormously difficult. This is the best job in the world, I absolutely love doing it, and I have the best staff and crew in the history of the medium, and I will fight anyone who says I don’t. But despite this sense of loss, I really feel this should be a happy moment. Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show and, for seven months, I got to. I did it my way, with people I love, and I do not  regret a second. I’ve had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-11 parking lot, we’ll find a way to make it fun.

And finally, I have to say something to our fans. The massive outpouring of support and passion from so many people has been overwhelming. The rallies, the signs, all the goofy, outrageous creativity on the internet, and the fact that people have traveled long distances and camped out all night in the pouring rain to be in our audience, made a sad situation joyous and inspirational.

To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I’ll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism, for the record, it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. 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 would have liked a little more Andy Richter participation in this episode and this farewell — but the guy knows how to write (or supervise the writing of) a good speech. Like his famous letter that kicked this whole controversy off, the speech manages to suggest animosity without expressing it: mentioning his long relationship with NBC, the better to call attention to how the network treated him, but without openly bashing the network.

– The show now closes out with Will Ferrell, guitar-playing Conan, and some special musical guests performing “Free Bird.” It’s a good ending, but a little perfunctory — intentionally so, I think, since this isn’t a real finale in the conventional sense. The overriding feeling is of something that’s been cut off before it says all it has to say, because that is almost certainly how O’Brien sees his Tonight Show. Maybe he’ll turn up somewhere else and finish saying what he was trying to say before he was rudely interrupted.

– And this has already been mentioned a lot, but as the show ends and Fallon begins, it’s now January 23. Johnny Carson died on January 23.

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