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Conan O’Brien Was a Late-Night Survivor Who Helped Quirkiness Go Mainstream

He's signing off after 28 years of the nightly grind — but he’s not going anywhere.
  • String dance, I think I'll miss you most of all. (Photo: TBS)
    String dance, I think I'll miss you most of all. (Photo: TBS)

    Conan O’Brien used to joke that if he were driving by a house that had caught fire, stopped his car, rushed in and rescued the people inside, the story in the next day’s newspaper would begin, “Conan O’Brien, whose talk show was once nearly cancelled by NBC…”

    The joke, in case you’re too young to get it, was that Conan’s narrative seemed forever destined to be defined by those precarious early months as the freckly new host of the show formerly known as Late Night With David Letterman. Those days, of course, are long in the past — as are the days when one’s proprietorship of an hour on the TV schedule was considered such a big honking deal. Watching the CNN series on The Story of Late Night, I was struck by how often I heard a talking head explain that late-night shows were the most daring and interesting hours on TV. Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and Jay Leno, we were assured, once held such sway that millions of Americans arranged their tuck-in times around the franchises they hosted.

    That was at a time when all of media thrived on scarcity resulting from technological friction. One local news source landed on your doorstep, and a few privileged electronic gatekeepers dispensed both news and entertainment. But that phone in your pocket — offering endless and effortless choice — circumvented and ultimately destroyed that small ecosphere. If you don’t believe me, ask my former colleagues in the newspaper, radio, and TV industries (if you can find them).

    So Conan O’Brien is signing off after nearly 28 years of hosting four nights, sometimes five nights, of late-night comedy and talk per week. That should seem like a bigger deal than it is. But it’s been a fairly quiet countdown to the last Conan. Partly this is the product of a pandemic that, until recently, barred guests and audiences from entering his makeshift studio at the historic L.A. theater now called the Largo.

    Partly, though, it’s because the world had changed long before COVID. When Letterman signed off at NBC in 1993, riding off on a white horse at 1:30 a.m., millions stayed up to watch it. Thursday’s Conan finale will be watched by maybe a few hundred thousand television viewers. Later on it will be streamed by millions, although probably not the whole hour-long expanded episode, more like a two-minute highlight on YouTube. The piece of the late-night pie that was once handed to Conan on a golden platter has turned into crumbs scraped off with a spork.

    But if the audience has moved on, so has Conan. His very public divorce from NBC taught him the value of timing your exit. Besides, he’s got plenty else to do. He hosts one of the most popular comedy podcasts on the planet, his Team Coco production company has built a small empire of podcasts, and he’s developing a new weekly show for HBO Max.

    And there are other silver linings. His rocky start has been relegated to a footnote. Few people still remember that NBC once refused to sign him to anything longer than a 13-week contract. Few remember the blistering Tom Shales review of Conan’s first days on the air. (Few remember Tom Shales, for that matter.) Few remember when Late Night With Conan O’Brien aired in Houston at 2:40 a.m.

    Also, the same YouTube that taketh away the TV audience hath given Team Coco an impressive platform for curating and sharing the best comedy bits from his three decades in late night. Many classic sketches were taped before a lot of Conan’s current fans were allowed to stay up late. His brand of silliness may never have been your cup of tea, and you may feel you’ve outgrown it, but it keeps pulling in new viewers. Alone among the late-night legends, Conan’s audience has stayed preternaturally youthful. There’s just something about his comic stance — preposterous, self-humiliating, witty and dorky at the same time — that never gets old.

    Conan’s late night years will be defined by the talents he championed: authors like David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, comics like Marc Maron and Tig Notaro, and all the celebs, from Sarah Silverman to Paul Rudd, who thrived in his universe. Quirkiness went mainstream during Conan’s years in late night, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Among the last set of Conan guests, three reflect the host’s quirky sensibility: Seth Rogen, Bill Hader, and Jack Black. (Dana Carvey, the other final guest, is an old friend from their SNL days together.)

    On a personal note, I’ve spent more time with Conan O'Brien than with any other television personality. Before the tell-all age of the podcast, the only way to understand the peculiar culture of late-night TV was to get to know insiders at the shows. And Conan proved to be the best insider source I ever had. Whenever I was in New York I had an open invite to visit the set, get friends into the studio audience, and chat with Conan after the show. One time I mentioned how, according to The Late Shift, Letterman would storm into his office after a “bad” taping and smash things. Conan gestured me to follow him. He walked into a small storage space one door down from the green room, and pointed to a light fixture that was hanging askew. A few nights earlier, he confessed, he had whacked that thing after a taping had not gone according to his exacting self-imposed standards. From that point on, I watched his show (and other shows) differently.

    Whenever I saw Conan reflexively reach for his coffee cup, or laugh nervously in response to something a guest said — usually followed by a hilarious comeback, which is his superpower — or read woodenly off a cue card, I realized I was watching a man every bit as polished, in his own way, as his nemesis Leno. It was the calculated, cultivated on-screen persona of a thinking-man's fool, a troublemaking choirboy, an introverted charmer, an improv comic in one of TV’s most traditional formats, and above all, a person who was not throwing away his shot.

    So much has changed since then. You can’t read my columns without going online, for instance. And pretty soon, online may be the only way to watch Late Night, the franchise that once meant so much to Conan O’Brien, and to the millions of fans who stuck with him through thick and thin, and who are cheering him on as he finds new ways to entertain the world.

    The final episode of Conan on TBS airs Thursday June 24 at 11:00 PM ET.

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    Conan O'Brien and the author on the Warner Brothers lot, 2010

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Conan, TBS, Conan O'Brien