Conan O’Brien presided over a proper Irish wake for his final Tonight Show. It was a boisterously funny, sobbingly sad, unpredictable hour that demonstrated all of his strengths while never hiding the emotions behind those skills.
O'Brien delivered a fine monologue that included the hope that "when HBO makes a movie" about this late-night mess, "I want to be played by Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton." A picture of Swinton loomed up beside Conan's face and, yep -- they really do look similar. He also continued his new "tradition" of giving us the "most expensive" sketches for NBC to fund. On his final night, a skeleton of a "giant ground sloth" that "sprayed Beluga on an original Picasso."
He also had a list of ideas for what NBC could do with the newly-built studio Conan was leaving. My favorite was, “Leave the studio cold and empty and rename it ‘The World’s Largest Metaphor for NBC Programming.’”
Tom Hanks came out carrying glasses of "Scotch" (i.e., cream soda) for Conan and himself. Hanks talked about an upcoming movie he's written and will direct, featuring Julia Roberts. Its subject? "It's about a guy who loses his job," Hanks said with a gulp as Conan did a double-take. It got a good laugh, but in the context of this celebratory wake, it almost seemed strange to watch Conan conduct a conventional celebrity interview. The night was, y'know, about Conan. But you had to admire O’Brien for sticking to some of the conventions right to the end.
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Conan then introduced Neil Young by saying the singer-songwriter was “the very first person who called” him. Young sang a beautiful solo version of “Long May You Run.” Hell, I almost teared up.
A bit later, Conan sat at the desk to thank NBC with sincerity, saying he was grateful for his time at The Tonight Show. O’Brien’s voice cracked and his eyes seemed to well up, near tears, when he told his fans, “I can never thank you enough” and that their support had been “joyous and inspirational.”
To close out the show, Will Ferrell came out to sing “Free Bird” wearing a Ronnie Van Zant wig and hat, as well as a t-shirt bearing a picture of the Tonight’s The Night-era Neil Young. Conan strapped on a guitar to accompany him, as did Beck and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.
It was, all in all, an hour that summed up O’Brien’s appeal: Wacky but modest, impishly intelligent and un-ironically sincere. On the one night when all the weeks of jokes about how he’s been messed-over by NBC could have come to a belligerent climax, Conan practiced what he preached when he said this night, “Please don’t be cynical… it doesn’t lead anywhere.”
Where that attitude will lead Conan O’Brien – last seen on The Tonight Show playing guitar furiously, yelling with pure joy as the band played “Free Bird” – will mark the next chapter in late-night television.
What did you think of last night’s farewell Tonight Show with Conan?
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For more: Conan’s final monologue