Tuned In

Free Bird: Conan Flies Coop, Seeks New Perch

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“Ladies and gentlemen,” Conan O’Brien intoned at the beginning of his final Tonight Show, “we have exactly one hour to steal every single item in this studio.”

Well, how about the audience? Can you fit them under your jacket? In his final show, O’Brien left with a mix of gratitude, rebellious humor and the implicit promise to be back, on some time and on some channel (a montage of Conan’s Tonight moments ended, “To Be Continued”). While Conan didn’t draw the size of audience his predecessor—and successor—Jay Leno did, his fan support (and ratings) have surged in the past few weeks. And, in a feisty late-night transition unlike any we’ve seen in recent years, his audience seemed ready to walk right out behind him. Has a network ever spent as much money to develop, promote and give a seven-month sabbatical to another network’s future host?

Unlike the usual valedictory handoffs of retiring TV hosts, this one was less a memorial than a kind of gallows-humor wake/party. Tom Hanks walked on stage with a glass of amber liquid and offered the host a sigh and a toast (with what turned out to be, supposedly, cream soda). Steve Carell made a deadpan surprise appearance to give Conan an exit interview (“Did anything trigger your decision to leave?”) and shredding his NBC ID card.

The show was, in a way, a kind of funeral, not so much for Conan as for the Tonight Show that he ultimately might have made, had NBC not disastrously screwed up its primetime schedule with Jay Leno and decided to move the former host back to Tonight, serving as the Band-Aid on the very wound he helped create.

Ironically, having gotten the axe, Conan spent the last two weeks doing his strongest run of Tonight Shows, his earlier jitters gone, with the confidence of a man who had nothing to lose and was simply going to do his show his way. Tonight, he strutted on stage to the audience’s standing-O, deflected it with one of his signature jerky sway moves (another Late Night staple that until recently he put away for the Tonight Show) and jokingly silenced the crowd, “We really gotta go! No, I don’t think you get it! We really gotta go!”

Even Conan’s last musical guest played to his differences from Jay’s Tonight Show: Neil Young, playing “Long May You Run.” Unlike Leno’s finale (well first finale) guest James Taylor, Young’s more of an acquired taste, a less smooth listen. But he’s also an authentic original, and leaving the stage he thanked Conan for “everything you’ve done for new music” (especially, one assumes, on his Late Night, which was an important launch pad for new artists).

Then came time for Conan’s last words as Tonight Show host. Because of reports that NBC has signed him to a nondisparagement agreement as part of his severance deal, he stressed first that “tonight”—the operative word being “tonight”—”I’m allowed to say anything I want.”

Which might lead you to expect him to unload. Conan has been feuding, publicly and privately, with NBC for the past two weeks, which has compounded its decision with one jerk move after another. Most recently NBC president Jeff Gaspin claimed that Conan’s Tonight Show would lose money for the network, which, as The Wrap’s Joe Adalian laid out, is almost certainly either fudged or a baldfaced lie, since David Letterman’s Late Show makes a handsome profit on a similar ad-demo rating.

But tonight Conan ended a show on a gracious note, remembering, with emotion in his voice, the good times at the network:

Yes, we have our differences right now and yes, we’re going to go our separate ways. But 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.

“Walking away from the Tonight Show is the hardest thing I have ever had to do,” he went on. But, he added, “I did it my way, with people I love. I do not regret one second of anything we’ve done here.” He made clear his intent to return with another show—”even if we have to do it in a 7-11 parking lot”—and thanked the Team Coco fans who poured out support for him online and in this week’s pouring L.A. rain.

And after all the acrimony, bad faith and low blows of the Tonight fiasco, he closed, voice breaking, with a statement of unimpeachable class: “All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people that watch: Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality. 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, I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.”

And then, as Conan said, something truly amazing did happen. Conan called onstage Will Ferrell, in bell-bottoms and wig (with cowbell!), to lead a band including ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Ben Harper, Beck and Ferrell’s own pregnant wife—plus Max Weinberg and the crew—in a full version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” And in what must be a first in talk-show-host farewells, Conan—who’s wielded an axe numerous times on his shows—played himself off the air by ripping a guitar solo, to a balls-out Southern Rock power ballad about getting out of a relationship with no future.

This wasn’t Bette Midler tenderly singing off Johnny Carson, but it was beautiful. It was the raucous, sly and true-to-himself sendoff of a host who—even if he wasn’t the right match for Leno loyalists—has a thought-out entertainer’s vision and knew exactly what he was doing with his Tonight Show. Conan had a rough ride, but he nailed his Tonight’s ending: it was weird, wryly appropriate, classy and straight from the heart.

Just like the show that, let’s hope, someone other than NBC will soon get to put on the air.