Farewell, Conan: Don't Give Yourself Away

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About two weeks before I graduated from college, my best friend got out of the poisonous relationship he'd been in for five years. He was ecstatic at the possibilities before him, and those final moments of school held for him a wonder and freedom he didn't even know he'd been missing. He's since moved on and is now married to the girl that was right for him.

I thought a lot about that time as I watched Conan O'Brien wrap his time behind the desk of NBC's The Tonight Show. After a series of events that left Conan unwilling to host a Tonight Show that wouldn't air in its 11:35 ET slot and subsequently set the stage for his departure form NBC, he was freer and looser -- just plain happier -- than he'd been since he took over the show last summer. He was never a dour host on Tonight; you just got the sense that he was always a little spooked at moving to the grown-up table, and that he wanted to balance his earnest silliness with a kind of reverence for and deference to the decades that had come before him. In his final moments at NBC, when he knew he was only a few hours from the door, he finally had the fire and verve to be the host we know he can be. His announcement on his penultimate show, "Let's have fun on television," was the mission statement he'd been missing.

But here's where I admit something, and I bet you do, too: I watched Conan more in the past couple weeks than I had in a long time. Sure, I would check him out when he hosted Late Night, and I tuned into his first episode of The Tonight Show in June and the next few, as well. But I didn't always tune in. Sometimes I'd watch Jon Stewart and stick around for Stephen Colbert over on Comedy Central; sometimes I'd watch a program I'd recorded earlier in the evening; sometimes I'd actually interact with other humans. The point is, I love Conan, and I barely watched. I've spent some time thinking about why that is, and I think I've come up with an answer.

Basically, we -- by which I mean the mostly younger people to whom Conan tends to appeal -- like the idea of Conan just as much as the actual person, and since liking the idea is easier and requires less of a time commitment, it tends to overshadow the show itself. We want Conan to be around not because we will always watch him, but so he'll be there if we can watch him. It's the difference between an active and passive fandom, and there's almost no other place it makes sense or could even be considered than in the marathon that is late-night talk shows. A TV series will run for a few seasons if you're lucky, but a late-night staple like The Tonight Show isn't going anywhere. It's aired right after the local news since it began in 1954, meaning that this thing hasn't moved since the Eisenhower administration. As such, the show isn't something viewers need to hurriedly watch lest they feel left out; rather, it's one of the few constants in television programming. And when you look at the time the hosts have held their spots, with Johnny Carson running 30 years and Jay Leno for 17 (to say nothing of the three- and five-year stints, respectively, that Steve Allen and Jack Paar got), you feel comfortable assuming that the show's current incarnation likely isn't going anywhere any time soon. We didn't watch Conan because we figured we didn't need to. If we wanted him, he'd be there.

But of course, that's not exactly what NBC would have us do, and you can see why. They want a hit out of the gate, and they want it to stay strong. It didn't help that Conan's ratings were below what Leno's were for most of his run at The Tonight Show; in addition to catering to a youthful audience that liked him but didn't necessarily feel the urge to watch regularly, Conan was going for almost a completely different group of people than Leno, period. The kind of people who are just as used to watching late-night highlights on Hulu as they are to seeing them as they air. You mix those two things -- the lack of urgency with the access to non-TV sources -- and that's the ballgame as far as the network is concerned. It doesn't matter that Leno needed time to build his own audience and find a rhythm, or that from 1992-1995, Leno lost to CBS' Late Show With David Letterman. NBC's flagship talk show had been tops for more than a decade and they wanted it to stay that way, and when it didn't, they reacted. NBC Universal TV entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin said it was "the cost of doing business," but that doesn't change the fact that their proposed change was a remarkably shortsighted way to fix things.

And Conan, to his credit, knew it. He didn't want to go along with his network's frantic and desperate attempt to overhaul their late-night schedule in their most drastic change in half a century, so he walked. He'd been getting into the groove of hosting his new show for seven months, and had been getting better and warmer since his start, but his radically accelerated departure brought with it an enormous change in pace and energy. These last two weeks, Conan realized the other thing we've all known: He's always Conan, no matter where he goes, and all he has to do to succeed is be himself. It's telling that, for instance, nobody ever talked about watching Late Night when Conan was at the helm; they just talked about watching Conan. Ditto his move to Tonight Show: When the host changed, so did the show's substance, and nobody I know or you know talked about, say, preferring Tonight to Late Show; they'd just say they liked Conan more than Letterman. We don't just watch shows, we watch hosts. As little as I may have seen The Tonight Show with Conan as host, I watched it with Leno even less. Even in the context of a vaguely newspapery opinion piece like this one, I can't refer to him as "O'Brien" without feeling odd. He's just Conan, the guy who gave us Oldie Oldson and the Masturbating Bear and Preparation H Raymond and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Wax Tom Cruise and, well, you name it. He's Conan, and that's who we watched.

So even as he inherited a dynasty that began a decade into the Cold War, he was still Conan, and that's something he seemed to rediscover with his back against the wall. He remembered too late what it's like to have a fire and passion to be his own greatest creation and best muse. In his final Tonight Show, he gracefully thanked NBC for the many years he'd spent with them and the brief time he'd been host of their late-night anchor. His farewell speech toward the end of the episode was appropriately wistful, and he smartly used it to caution his younger fans against growing cynical at the turn of events that had led to his leaving. "Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get," he said, "but if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen."

Conan's contractually obligated to wait until September to return to the air as host of another show, and a lot can happen in nine months. But if his last days at NBC are anything to go by, his new creation, whatever it is, will be something worth watching because it will come from a guy who's remembered why he got into this gig in the first place. Conan's last show featured a montage mirroring the one that kicked off his Tonight stint in June, set once more to Cheap Trick's "Surrender," and it ended with him bursting out through the Universal Studios gate and into the great beyond as the chorus reminded him, "Don't give yourself away." From here on out, that'll be his guiding light. To put it another way: Let's have fun on television.

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