Later, Conan: Late Night’s Best Host Says Goodbye to the Talk ShowPhoto courtesy of Getty Images Comedy Features Conan O'Brien
For 28 years Conan O’Brien has been a talk show host. That ends tonight, with the last episode of his TBS show, Conan. He’s not leaving TV—his travel specials will continue on TBS, and he’ll be launching a variety show for HBO Max in the future—but he’ll no longer be a nightly fixture on TV like he’s been for most of the last three decades. It’s a bittersweet moment—O’Brien’s been the best to do it for most of his run, and the only late night host in that time who’s come close is David Letterman, O’Brien’s inspiration and the original host of the NBC show that O’Brien first made his name on. I didn’t watch Conan regularly, but it was comforting to know that O’Brien was still on the air, still producing great comedy, and still doing it his way, without bending to the trends and fads that other late night hosts have had to chase over the last decade. But due to a variety of reasons, O’Brien and his show haven’t been afforded the respect or attention they deserve since moving to TBS, and the thought of one of our best comedy writers trying something new after working in one style for almost 30 years should excite any comedy fan. Conan might be done, but maybe now Conan O’Brien can work on something that feels as fresh and exciting as his Late Night run did back in the ‘90s and ‘00s.
Honestly, O’Brien’s move is past due. The late night talk show is a shell of what it used to be, a remnant from an earlier era of entertainment that the legacy TV networks keep alive mostly because they have no idea what else to do. O’Brien’s been the best to do it for most of his run, but he’s spent the 11 years since his acrimonious split with NBC under the radar, hosting a good but little-seen show on a cable network that’s best known for sitcom reruns and Atlanta Braves games—something TBS hasn’t even aired in 14 years. It’s been too easy for O’Brien to be overlooked during his time on TBS, with a series of new, buzzier hosts taking over the traditional network shows, the proliferation of Daily Show-style political late night shows that know how to capitalize on social media, and the ultimate politicization of the entire format during the Trump years. O’Brien and his team continued to quietly make the best show in late night, but it felt more out of step with pop culture every year; that was great from a quality perspective, but obviously unsustainable from a network’s perspective. As great as O’Brien is at hosting talk shows, he probably should’ve moved on to a new format years ago.
As with any talk show, the secret to O’Brien’s late night success—from Late Night, to his ill-fated stint on The Tonight Show, to his quiet decade on Conan—has been the host himself. From the start O’Brien embraced the absurdity and ridiculousness that David Letterman brought to late night, but with less cynicism and without any of Letterman’s occasional mean-spiritedness. If the overall spirit of Letterman’s show was “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” O’Brien’s was “I can’t believe I get to do this.” Even during the shaky first two years of his Late Night run, O’Brien’s excitement seemed genuine and infectious; he committed to the comedy bits with good nature, without the distance with which Letterman approached almost everything, and during interviews he seemed to have a sincere interest in what his guests had to say. He was the best-case scenario of a comedy writer turned performer, someone with unnaturally sharp comedic instincts, but with a natural charisma that shone through even during his nervous early years, and, perhaps most crucially, the humility to not make himself the sole focus of the show. He’d regularly share the spotlight with his guests, his sidekick Andy Richter, his band, and his writers, and not in the ironic, potentially condescending way Letterman would do with his crew or Times Square neighbors. It’s a little reductive to say that O’Brien took everything that made Letterman’s show great, but replaced its sourness with niceness, but it’d also be true.
At his peak on Late Night, O’Brien offered a younger and far funnier alternative to Letterman and Jay Leno, which were effectively the only other games in town at the time. There are more late night shows today than back then, and younger, ostensibly hipper hosts have taken over the reins of the legacy shows, but O’Brien and Conan remained better than all of them. You wouldn’t find the forced frivolity of Fallon, Colbert’s milquetoast liberalism or weird stabs at paternalism, or the political snark of Seth Meyers. You’d just find one of the funniest men on TV, his longtime sidekick, and a tremendous writing staff producing some of the best comedy anywhere. Even though the late night format is old and hackneyed, even though Conan’s profile wasn’t nearly as high as O’Brien’s previous shows’ or his network competition’s, it was still fundamentally as good, as silly, and as special as Late Night was all those years ago. After 28 years of producing consistently great comedy almost every day of the week, O’Brien more than deserves a break. And when he comes back, whether it’s on his travel specials, with that HBO Max variety show, or with another new project that hasn’t yet been announced, he’ll no doubt remain just as funny and likable as he’s always been. Until then, we get to spend one last half-hour with O’Brien; as somebody who stayed up ‘til 1:30 a.m. on a school night to watch his Late Night debut, I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.