in 1993. When I became old enough to stay up till 12:30 a.m., David Letterman was in his heyday on the show, and Conan was, in my opinion, no Dave.
I was hardly alone in that assessment early on — the stories of O'Brien being pilloried by critics and working on 13-week contracts are well-worn by now. I'm also far from alone in having come to really like O'Brien's brand of late-night TV over the past 15-plus years, whether he's picking apples with Mr. T or visiting Finland, to whose (female) president he bears a striking resemblance.
O'Brien closed out his Late Night tenure on Friday; he's moving to Los Angeles to take over The Tonight Show starting in June. I think he's probably smart enough to know that things like the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever and the Masturbating Bear (both of which made final appearances on the show this week) might not work for the somewhat broader 11:30 p.m. audience, and I also think he'll be able to keep his own voice at the earlier time.
Friday, though, was about letting that oddball stuff out one last time on Late Night. Here's how it went down:
12:38 a.m.: Conan, in a black suit and striped tie, accepts a lengthy standing O from the crowd, complete with "Conan, Conan!" chanting and a little string dance. "What the hell are you doing?" he finally asks. It's show 2,725, we're informed — "42 of them quite good."
12:40: "We're going to have some friends stop by … not the cast of Friends. They need too much dough to reunite."
12:41: John Mayer sends a video greeting — a song called "L.A.'s Gonna Eat You Alive": "I used to live in NYC/Now I'm as douchey as a guy could be…" You know, much as I want to dislike Mayer, it's hard for me to do so completely when he does stuff like this.
12:43: Conan can't take every part of his show to Los Angeles, so Abe Vigoda can once again run free.
12:44: O'Brien's personal, all-time favorite clip: The "old-time base ball" segment from a couple years back. Handlebar mustaches are almost never not funny, and the whole piece is outstanding.
12:51: As he's done all week, O'Brien destroys a piece of the set to give to the audience. Tonight, he wants to do "something big" and has a crew member pull down part of the proscenium. "I will break this up during the commerical break," he promises.
12:55: The audience is thrilled to have their pieces of the set. "You wouldn't be so excited if you knew it was pure asbestos."
12:55: Ladies and gentlemen, fomer President George W. Bush. OK, Will Ferrell as Dubya. "I was just in the neighborhood — stopped by the Virgin Megastore to pick up the Larry the Cable Guy movie. … I also want to personally thank you, Conan, for 16 years of humortastical wonderment and stupidtastical giggleosity."
12:57: And, one last Will Ferrell leprechaun striptease. Oh dear.
1:02: More flashbacks: Conan pranking Andy Richter, who walks onto the Today set nude. "Is Katie around?" Matt Lauer manages to keep a straight face.
1:03: Andy Richter! Of course, Richter had to come back for the last show. A maniacally smiling Richter yells, "I told you it was just a matter of time [after I left] before they ripped you off the air!"
1:05: More clips, ranging from Ginger the homicidal German shepherd to Conan, the Ken Burns documentary. What's striking in some of them is how small and cheap the set looked in the early days.
1:12: Aaand, more highlights. It's hard to object to seeing things like the Conan/Robert Reich buddy-cop show again, but I was kinda hoping for a little bit more from the studio. I'd love to hear O'Brien and Richter just sit and talk about what they were thinking in the early days.
1:15: The infamous Rebecca Romijn kiss. OK, that was totally worth seeing again.
1:21: The White Stripes, with Jack and Meg both on guitar, sing a slowed-down and kind of haunting version of "We're Going to Be Friends."
1:29: Nice touch: O'Brien praises the entire staff of the show and encourages everyone to watch the end credits so we can see their names.
1:32: About producer Lorne Michaels: "Lorne Michaels single-handedly made my career in television."
1:33: "NBC — it's very popular to make jokes about the network, and I've made more than my share. And we're in the toilet right now, so why not." But seriously folks — name-checks for all the higher-ups who got and kept Conan on the air.
1:34: "David Letterman invented this Late Night show. He's probably one of the most brilliant broadcasters certainly of the last century and this century, and for all time. I have a terrific amount of respect for him and what he did — he set the bar absurdly high for everybody in my generation who does this. Living in his shadow has been a burden and an inspiration for me for years. And I think we need to acknowledge that it all started with David Letterman."
1:35: Segueing into Leno territory: "In the same vein, I'd like to say something about Mr. Jay Leno. From day one, he's called me constantly and offered his support. Every night at the end of The Tonight Show, he says 'Stay tuned for Conan O'Brien' — he's done that since 1993. The Tonight Show under Jay Leno has been a powerhouse. His success turned into success for us. I owe that man a great deal. … I'm thrilled that he will continue to be my lead-in."
1:37: A fond farewell to 30 Rock and New York — "It will never get better than this for me" — and a final shout-out to executive producer Jeff Ross, the guy who gets the show on the air every night.
1:38: Family time: "My brother Neil has watched every single show and called me the next day and told me it was great, even when it clearly wasn't."
1:40: We're running into Carson Daly's time now (not that it bothers me): "I don't know what I did to deserve the opportunity to do this. There are people who have hosted these kinds of shows who I'm sure are better than I am — no one has ever, ever enjoyed it more than I have. … [He chokes up a little here, which is kind of sweet.]
"We're going on to this next gig, and sometimes I read that it's time for Conan to grow up because he's going to 11:30, and I assure you, that's just not going to happen." Wild applause. "… Please come hang with me at the next gig. We're going to have a really good time."
Will you be hanging with Conan at the next gig? What did you think of his final Late Night?