this week in late night

Conan O’Brien’s (Third) Farewell Won Late Night This Week

Bill Hader, Paul Rudd, and Conan O’Brien. Photo: YouTube

June 24 marked the end of an era, the third final show for Conan O’Brien. But this time, he means it. O’Brien is moving on to weekly pastures, bidding farewell to three decades of nightly shows. Conan’s passing had less fanfare than his Tonight Show exit, but was still full of significant moments and good-byes. There was one last altercation with Jordan Schlansky, one last unctuous Andy Daly character, and one last Paul Rudd Mac and Me prank. Paul Rudd skipped the Friends reunion, but he made time for this.

O’Brien’s last week of guests was a panoply of high-energy (or just high) white guys Bill Hader, Seth Rogen, Dana Carvey, and Jack Black. It put O’Brien’s comedy in context: inspired by weirdos like Carvey, and inspiring future weirdos like Hader and Rogen. While sharing a joint with O’Brien, Rogen recalled getting starstruck by the Masturbating Bear.

In the parlance of faux-sincere Twitter obituaries, O’Brien taught a generation of comedic voices that it was okay to be weird. Not only that — it was a prerequisite for the job. Carvey used his last appearance on Conan to work out a truly dumb character: Red Rednecky, the Redneck Comedian (intentionally bad). Carvey wanted to work shit out on Conan because the show was taping at Largo, a venue known for experimental and sometimes unpolished comedy. The fact that TBS was most likely paying this L.A. institution’s bills for half the pandemic is truly heartwarming. Venues across the country shut down, but Largo will hopefully survive because O’Brien took care of it.

In Lisa Kudrow’s last appearance on the show, she and O’Brien went to the venue’s Little Room, where the two first met. A teacher held an improv class there (back when improv classes didn’t need giant comedy institutions behind them), and classmates O’Brien and Kudrow became smitten with each other. They honed their comedic sensibilities together in the space, becoming more themselves by hanging out.

More than anything, a Conan booking gave people a chance to be a dumbshit. As Conan and Aaron Bleyaert discussed on a live YouTube stream, the motto at Conan was “Let’s try it.” O’Brien’s commitment to changing with the times and trying new stuff is what helped him weather all the monumental changes late night has undergone. More than any other host, O’Brien is responsible for the current YouTuber state of late night. The cult of personality, the readily available clips the following night, remote pieces, affiliate podcasts, “let’s play”–style video-game content: Conan did it all first. In the same livestream, O’Brien expressed that he’s always been relatively format agnostic. He makes funny jokes, and other younger, techier folks figure out how to get it out there.

And more than any other late-night host (except maybe Carson, who had the monoculture to back him up), O’Brien was the master of the parasocial relationship. The Tonight Show going FUBAR went from tragedy to opportunity. Rather than let NBC push him into obscurity, he went to the common man. Being Team Coco became a definer of one’s aesthetic; you were cool if you saw liking Conan as a political act. The kids embraced Coco, vowing to follow him to any network that would have him. And though not every viewer actually made the jump to TBS, the Conan O’Brien brand is still strong enough to secure an HBO Max show.

The only thing I missed from this farewell to Conan was stand-up. Jimmy Pardo came back to be the warm-up comic one last time, but we the TV viewing audience didn’t get to see it. Getting a stand-up slot on Conan launched about half the comedians we know today. Emily Heller posted a tribute on Instagram, sharing that her first Conan set got her her first staff job, which allowed her to move to L.A. This same week, Heller signed an overall deal with CBS. Rarely does one’s life feel so full circle.

Speechless and Genera+ion actor John Ross Bowie commented on how many comedic actors got their start on Late Night. “[Late Night With Conan O’Brien] was recruiting so many people from the Upright Citizens Brigade that detractors started to call the UCB ‘Conan O’Brien University,’” he wrote. “We learned so much at Conan — finding your light, what ‘back to one’ means, how to hit a mark.” And stand-ups from Paul F. Tompkins to Maggie Maye and Allen Strickland Williams also posted notes about what performing on the show meant to them. Conan may be gone, but the house he built will stand for a long, long time.

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Conan O’Brien’s (Third) Farewell Won Late Night This Week