The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien went out the same way it came in seven months ago--with class, delight and plenty of laughs.
O'Brien has been on fire the last few weeks, seizing his final shows and driving The Tonight Show to a "Must See" level NBC hasn't seen in years.
O'Brien opened his Friday finale by telling the 280 people crammed into his bleachers that "we have exactly one hour to steal every single item in this studio."
O'Brien said he was bummed that "the fun has to come to an end a decade too early." That clause in his NBC deal that says he can't host another late night show until September? "Next month, look forward to The Andy Richter Show with his sidekick, me."
About ten minutes in, a clip of highlights was shown that demonstrated just what fools these pinheads who run NBC must be. O'Brien's Tonight Show did so many cool things. They took full advantage of their Universal Studios theme park setting, shot cannons and held motorcycle stunts outside in front of the studio and even roped the host into several special effects stunts inside the sound stage. That bit where he knocked over dozens of Domino's Pizza delivery people--priceless.
After the first break, Steve Carell came out and did an "exit interview" bit where he fired O'Brien as if he was George Clooney from Up In The Air. Last week in Pasadena at the semi-annual press tour, I stood next to a colleague who is as connected as you can get to the whole late night scene. He sent O'Brien's executive producer Jeff Ross an email pitching the very same idea--only with George Clooney firing Conan.
That would have killed, but Clooney had more important things to do on this night, including marshall the troops for the Hollywood telethon in support of Haiti.
Tom Hanks, also involved in the Haiti efforts, did appear after the second segment, although his appearance was shot earlier to accommodate the telethon schedule. "In our house you will always be host of the tonight show," he told O'Brien, then asked him if he could come over to the house around 10:45 each night so he and Rita could get to bed a little earlier.
Hanks, who coined the whole "Coco" thing about O'Brien during an earlier appearance, mentioned he was shooting the Haiti event over at CBS's Television City. "Sounds like a fine network," said O'Brien.
After the next break, O'Brien introduced the first guy who called and offered support when news of the whole NBC upheaval broke--Neil Young. Old Neil played "Long May You Run," a sweet, passionate send off for O'Brien.
After another break, with the clock ticking down on his Tonight Show career, O'Brien took the opportunity to speak from the heart. He did this last May on his final Late Night, too, and was just as effective Friday night.
O'Brien took the high road, distancing himself from all the bitterness being hurled at the network. "This company has been my home for most of my adult life," he stated. "I want to thank NBC for making it all possible, I really do."
He said leaving Tonight "was the hardest thing I have ever had to do," and that--as Jack Paar famously concluded five decades earlier--"it was the best job in the world." For seven months I got to do it, he said. "I do not regret one second of anything we've done here." Take that, Dick Ebersol.
He thanked the fans for their massive outpouring of support, with people camping out all night in the rain just to get stand-by tickets into the final tapings. "You made a sad situation joyous and inspirational," he said.
He also aimed a plea directly at younger viewers: "Please don't be cynical," he said. "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."
There was time for one last surprise, a big band send off with Will Ferrell--O'Brien`s first Tonight guest--playing hippie lead in a rock jam of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." Max Weinberg on drums, ZZ Top guitarist Bill Gibbons on lead axe, Beck and peddal guitar whiz Robert Randolph and O'Brien himself jamming on guitar.
Pretty much a fantasy exit for O'Brien, who earned every ovation he got in what had to be an emotional roller coaster of a week.
Speaking of class, Jimmy Fallon gets props for saluting O'Brien in the cold opening to his show immediately following the Free Bird set. Fallon walked across the hall from his Rockefeller Center 6-B studio to 6-A, for 17 years O'Brien's home (and before that, home to Letterman's old NBC show). There he joined the Roots Band in an a capella salute to O'Brien. After that, he poured malt liquor onto the studio 6-A floor--until the current tenant, Dr. Oz, chased them all out.
UPDATE: Meanwhile, on the other channels, the nastiness continues. Saturday--the day after Conan's Tonight Show finale--marks five years to the day that late night legend Johnny Carson (left) passed away at 79. "It was five years ago today," David Letterman told his audience Friday night, "but don't worry--Jay has an alibi."