I will never forget what Keith said when I asked him how he felt about the news that Conan O’Brien said would be taking over The Tonight Show. He said it reminded him of the scene in Goodfellas where Joe Pesci thinks he’s becoming a made man only to get assassinated gangland-style. It seemed too good to be true. Hot headed punks like Pesci don’t get to be Made Men and eight-foot-tall hyperactive, super-genius goofballs like Conan aren’t supposed to take over Johnny Carson’s vacated throne.
Keith wasn’t saying Conan wasn’t good enough to take over the most prestigious, high profile position in all of late-night comedy. He was saying that Conan was, if anything, too good, too weird and too brazenly original for The Tonight Show’s mass audience.
Watching Late Night With Conan O’Brien I’ve often had the feeling that Conan was getting away with something. Let the world have Jay Leno. Conan was and is for us; the comedy geeks, insomniacs, potheads, oddballs and night owls. Conan seemed to inhabit the same crazy upside down world as After Hours, a nighttime realm where the rules went out the window and a cosmic and comic anarchy reigned.
With apologies to Hannah Arendt, Leno represents to me the evil of banality, the tragedy of a gifted stand-up comedian dumbing down his material for the lowest common denominator. In sharp contrast Conan bravely if insanely seems to assume that his audience is every bit as weird and smart and off-kilter as himself. He is a glorious anomaly, a beautiful freak, a man who became a television institution without compromising his fundamental weirdness.
You really have to like someone to welcome them into your home for an hour five nights a week. We have an intense relationship with our late night heroes. That’s why Johnny Carson’s final show became instantly iconic, David Letterman is a comedy God and it seemed positively perverse to give late-night shows to Chevy Chase and Jerry Lewis, men infamous for having phenomenally shitty personalities. Seriously, say what you will about my mother or my religion but disparage Conan, Letterman, Colbert or Stewart and I’ll punch you right in your fucking face. Christ, I even got choked up during the final episode of The Larry Sanders Show. Even fictional talk show hosts have a funny way of tugging at our heartstrings.
Like a lot of Late Night fans I worry that Conan will have to water down the weirdness to appeal to The Tonight Show audience, that he’ll have to appeal to Joe and Jane Whitebread as well as aficionados of The Masturbating Bear or Brian Stack’s racist ghost of a forties crooner.
So I was more emotionally invested in the final episode in the final episode of Late Night With Conan O’Brien than I have been in most Presidential elections. It was the climax of a week thick with nostalgia as Conan brought back favorite guests and indulged in an extended deluge of greatest hits.
Tonight was no exception. John Mayer contributed a brief yet catchy ditty promising that Hollywood will eat Conan alive that contained the indelible couplet, “I used to live in NYC/Now I’m as douchey as a man can be” before Will Ferrell reprised his beloved George W. Bush character and his even more beloved outsized leprechaun stripper routine.
The final episode of Late Night With Conan O’Brien played it relatively safe. Andy Richter came back for one last stroll down memory lane and Jack and Meg White showed up looking and sounding like a bizarro world version of Johnny and June Carter Cash to play a spooky, spare bluesy number about friendship. When Conan stooped down to tell Jack that the White Stripes appearance “meant the world” to him it felt weirdly intimate instead of perfunctory.
But it was all just an extended run-up to a climactic final segment where Conan, his voice shaking with emotion, eschewed smartassery and joking and issued a very sincere, heartfelt thanks to everyone who has made Late Night’s sixteen-year runpossible. I was particularly moved by his tribute to David Letterman. His praise for Jay Leno felt rote by comparison; he thanked Leno for his unstinting support and friendship but said next to nothing about Leno’s Tonight Show itself. It was a classy and emotional farewell from a man destined for bigger if not necessarily better things.
Will success spoil our Conan? Christ, I hope not but I’m concerned about the move to Los Angeles. As he acknowledged in his final monologue, New York is in Late Night With Conan O’Brien’s DNA. It embodies the city’s jazzy, manic, neurotic, oddball rhythms as completely and eloquently as Sweet Smell of Success’ tart dialogue and Notorious B.I.G’s liquid flow. I sincerely hope that Conan conquers L.A instead of the other way around.
Thank you, Conan, for the last sixteen years. I am hopeful but cautious and wary about what the future might hold for our Conan.
—I was similarly moved by Stephen Colbert’s show-closing homage to Conan a few days back. It sucks that the shows of three of my all-time favorite television people (Conan, Colbert and Letterman) will be airing at the same time. I really do need to get one of them newfangled DVRs I keep hearing about