Conan O’Brien has certainly said good-bye before.
He did it in 2009, when Late Night With Conan O’Brien, the OG Conan talk show, ended so that he could ascend to The Tonight Show. He did it again less than a year later when he exited The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien so that baby-boomer weasel Jay Leno could snatch back the gig he had just — and I do mean just — passed on to O’Brien.
O’Brien’s third farewell came Thursday night, during the hour-and-15-minute final episode of Conan, the TBS show that gave the comedian and his red pompadour a home after the Tonight Show debacle. But even this — as pointed out by Will Ferrell, a veteran guest on previous Conan-related finales who showed up for this one via Zoom — was not truly a sign-off.
While the Conan finale marked the end of that show’s 11-year run and the close of the host’s 28-year career in late night, he’s not going anywhere. He’s still got his own podcast network and an HBO Max variety series coming soon, actual date still TBD. In that spirit, Ferrell went ahead and prerecorded the comments he would make on the final episode of that HBO Max project, as well as the hypothetical future ones that the driven O’Brien will embark on later. “Hey, Conan, I am truly going to miss your Delta in-flight talk show Wheels Up With Conan O’Brien,” Ferrell said with mock sincerity.
Even though O’Brien isn’t retiring, the end of Conan signified something: the end of a long career in the late-night genre, but also the last tangible evidence of a late-night landscape where ratings mattered and viewers watched in real time, as opposed to catching the best bits later on the internet. The TBS iteration of the O’Brien oeuvre debuted as that transition was already in progress. For that reason, as well as the fact that it aired on TBS, the conversation around Conan was always quieter than the buzz around his old 12:30 a.m. NBC show. During the past decade-plus, O’Brien still kept doing his high-meets-lowbrow style of comedy and remained a revered and respected figure in the industry. But Conan had more of a low-key run, and its finale appropriately played out in the same funny but chill spirit.
Its cold opening consisted of an exit interview between O’Brien and Homer Simpson, a nod to the gig as a Simpsons writer that preceded his entry into late night. Many clips of Conan being Conan — reacting to Nicole Byer’s frank sexual comments or gleefully beating on a desk in a Haiti classroom during one of his Conan Without Borders specials — were shown. Jack Black appeared in a cast and with a cane, necessary by-products of the ankle sprain he sustained while rehearsing what was supposed to be a musical number in which Black pretended to get injured. But then, he actually got injured.
“When Carson went off the air, and Letterman, and all these legends go off the air, everything’s meticulous,” O’Brien noted. “Of course we would think of a bit with Jack where Jack pretends to get hurt and then, while shooting it, actually gets hurt.” (For the record, Black still stood up on both feet, cane tossed aside, to sing a rousing Conan-themed riff on “My Way.”)
As much success as he has achieved, even during his swan song, O’Brien still characterized himself as an underdog. That felt right. When he debuted on NBC in 1993, he was immediately counted out by critics. When he finally earned what was once considered the golden ticket of late-night television as host of The Tonight Show, he was counted out by the suits at NBC. Naturally, in his final night on TBS, something had to go awry.
It’s tempting to characterize the easygoing nature of the Conan finale, held in L.A.’s intimate Largo at the Coronet where O’Brien and his team have been recording the show since last summer, as a reflection of where his career has taken him. But that’s not true. The Conan finale was, as his work has always been, a reflection of who Conan O’Brien is.
If you go back and look at the Late Night With Conan O’Brien finale from 2009, it’s notable how much it shares in common with the finale of Conan. Tons of clips were shown. Will Ferrell made an appearance. In 2009, Jack and Meg White were the musical guests. In 2021, Jack Black sang a song. At the end of his first late-night talk show, O’Brien took several minutes to thank many people who worked on the show and influenced him, and he did the same thing this time. Many of the names he mentioned — executive producer Jeff Ross, his parents, his wife Liza — were the same names.
On both shows, he also took a moment, as he famously did at the end of his too-brief Tonight Show run, to acknowledge how important it is to value others.
In 2009, he said his parents, who were in the audience that night, taught him, “It’s fine to be funny, but if you have no character, none of it’s worth a damn.”
In 2021, in the final minutes of Conan, he said, “Try and do what you love with people you love. If you can manage that, it’s heaven on earth.”
There are a lot of great things about Conan O’Brien. But maybe the best one is that, even as the late-night landscape transformed and sometimes got vicious, he never became anyone other than who he was at the start.