Conan O'Brien exits 'The Tonight Show' with jokes and grace

After taking an exit deal worth an estimated $45M from NBC, former 'Tonight Show' host Conan O'Brien is set to debut a new late-night talk show on TBS on November 8.
By Hank Stuever
Sunday, January 24, 2010

So it subsides, if only for a while, this so-called late-night war that always brings out the worst in everyone -- in the overpaid hosts, in stubborn yet desperate network executives and perhaps even in audiences.

Yet it brought out the best in Conan O'Brien on Friday night. The outgoing "Tonight Show" host -- who has become the heroic, idealized "Coco" to dejected fans -- could not have seemed more optimistic and noble as he bid farewell on his final show.

And he was just bitter enough. "We have one hour to steal every single item in this studio," O'Brien told his audience, who gave him several standing ovations and chanted, "Coco! Coco!"

About his seven-month tenure in the venerated 11:35 p.m. time slot, O'Brien joked that "like everything in life, the fun has to come to an end a decade too early. . . . As I set off for exciting new career opportunities, I just want to make one thing clear to everyone listening out there: I will do nudity." (He also asked that, when the inevitable TV movie adaptation comes out about the Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien/NBC showdown, Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton play the part of Coco.) O'Brien is sure to be back in some way, even "if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-Eleven parking lot, we will find a way to make it fun. We really will," he said near the end of the broadcast.

His $45 million separation agreement with NBC will keep him from starting a show on a competing network until September. In his opening monologue, O'Brien joked that nothing forbids him from switching places with sidekick Andy Richter on another show -- in which Richter hosts and O'Brien plays the loyal oaf. ("On Animal Planet," Richter suggested.)

Later, after an "exit interview" sketch with "The Office" star Steve Carell ("Did anything trigger your decision to leave the company?") and a supportive chat with actor Tom Hanks, Coco grew more serious and sentimental about the network that has caused him to go:

"There has been a lot of speculation in the press about what I legally can and can't say about NBC," he said. "To set the record straight, tonight I am allowed to say anything I want. And what I want to say is this: Between my time at 'Saturday Night Live,' 'The Late Night' show and my brief run here on the 'Tonight Show,' I have worked with NBC for over 20 years. . . . This company has been my home for most of my adult life. I am enormously proud of the work we have done together, and I want to thank NBC for making it all possible."

After a disastrous experiment to do a comedy-variety-talk show in prime time, Jay Leno will come back to "Tonight" in the 11:35 p.m. slot on March 1. NBC's Winter Olympics recaps will fill most of the late-night void until then. When Leno returns, it will be as if he never left.

And that's the problem, isn't it? Here we are, well into the 21st century, and wide swaths of our culture seem unwilling to move forward, let go, move on, hand things over to Generation X or younger.

People wonder if O'Brien was too hip and young (at 46?) to lull America into a gentle, happy sleep. Part of the "Team Coco" movement that rose up after O'Brien announced his resignation scintillates this creeping feeling that the Baby Boomers (Leno is 59) will never get out of the way. There's at least some truth to that.

But O'Brien wasn't having it -- and neither should his most loyal fans. For all the fuss (and the ungodly sums of money being thrown around), these are merely television shows, and there's ample evidence ("The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, "The Colbert Report," "Adult Swim" cartoons) that the generations have long since gone their separate ways, across a vast buffet of TV networks and niche audiences. We are getting farther and farther away from the talk show formats that our parents and grandparents have always chuckled at.

So when it comes time to tell our children of the great late-night war of 2010, what will we tell them? Is there a takeaway lesson?

Maybe it's this: Stay positive. In a longer and more heartfelt speech at the end of his show (before he joined Will Ferrell and others in a cheesy, jammin' rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird") O'Brien cautioned against viewing his strange predicament as a story of resentment and cynicism:

"All I ask of you, especially young people . . . is one thing. Please don't be cynical," O'Brien said. "I hate cynicism -- it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you, amazing things will happen."

Now we know: Coco wants Oprah's old job.

The broadcast happened too late for the review to be included in the Sunday Arts & Style section.

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