conan o’brien wrapped up the final episode of late night with conan o’brien back in march. i’m not sure why, but leading up to that show i had been actually kind of sad thinking about conan packing up and taking the reigns of the tonight show. conan had been hosting late night for 16 years now, which is actually pretty incredible if you think about it. the first year or so of the show was reamed by critics and fans alike, and subsequently has become the funniest late night talk show on television and for my money, the funniest show on television period (that’s right office writers, you really have dropped the ball).
i guess it made me kind of sad thinking about his move because while i didn’t watch him growing up, i started watching him all the time when i was in 8th grade and all through high school. along with jim carrey in dumb and dumber, conan was the most influential person when i was developing my own sense of funny. the guy just did and said things that always made me laugh. he was very self-depricating, but not in a “pity me”-woody allen type of way. he made fun of himself all the time, yet always laughed at the jokes he made at his expense because he knew they were funny. that’s a subtle but important distinction that resonated with me very strongly. and he not only made jokes about himself, but jokes about the quality of the show, sketches, props, special effects, ridiculous audience members, inappropriate guests, etc. nothing was really off limits, but he was always respectful. his jokes were never truly mean-spirited, in his monologues, after making a completely inappropriate joke about whatever, the audience would usually laugh/make a “ohhhh” sound and he would make this hilarious face where he tensed up because he knew what he said was too much. he knew it was a joke and that face was part of the delivery but i always found it just very funny.
jay leno is also no longer the host of the tonight show. his last show was very nice; a fitting tribute to end his seventeen years as host. leno has always been kind of a tough cookie for me; i’ve never wanted to like him all that much but i’ve always enjoyed watching his show. he was never really loved by the critics or even by carson it seems. letterman was always thought of as the true successor of the tonight show and was generally treated better by critics than leno was. but leno has always been more popular with the american public, and kept the tonight show the number one rated late night show on tv. i think it comes back to his personality. his jokes were never grade A, usually landing in the cheese pile. but he was a nice guy. everybody always talks about how you could have a beer with jay. he didn’t “get” twitter, just like most every american over the age of forty-five. part of it for me is that while his jokes might be too accessible or not very intelligent, he always seemed to know exactly that and just went with it and enjoyed getting easy, silly laughs. he reminded me of my dad in that way. he was always ready with the old rim-shot punch line and was pleased whether he got a big laugh or a groan and a roll of the eyes. and that’s why he was successful. because people gravitate to kindness. to sincerity. and jay delivered that. he didn’t deliver high-brow comedy, but he delivered a lot of silly jokes and a bit of escapism.
jay’s last show was surprisingly sweet. he had the obligatory best of jaywalking sketch, and then had conan on as a guest, which was very gentlemanly of him, considering conan was taking over in two days. james taylor was jay’s handpicked musical guest, playing sweet baby james, the song jay heard on his way out of boston nearly forty years ago on his way to hollywood to try to make it in show business. and then his sign off. very sweet, very leno. he introduced all the kids that had been born from couples who had met each other working on leno’s tonight show, sixty-eight total, from age zero to seventeen. it was a really nice sentiment to end his last show. and it was sad too. the same type of sad conan’s goodbye on late night was in march, not completely sad because he’s not gonna be gone for long. but still sad. a lot of people my parents’ age kind of see this as the end of an era since leno was really the only guy they liked. hopefully they give conan a chance.
if nothing else, he’ll be treated better and given more slack than he was when he took over late night in ’93. conan’s evolution since ’93 is really incredible. he started as a nervous, seemingly unfunny host who had just gotten the gig because he had connections with lorne michaels, producer of most of the funny stuff on nbc and a pretty big power player at the network. conan had been a writer on snl at the tail end of the ’80s and had started writing for the simpsons during the best seasons of that show (3rd-4th). having known him from his snl days, michaels gave conan a shot once letterman announced he was leaving late night and boy did it not go over well. nobody had ever heard of this guy conan. he had never been on tv. he seemed awkward and unsure of himself. his first episode of late night was posted somewhere online a few months ago and i watched the first little bit of it. holy cow it is uncomfortable to watch. conan so very clearly isn’t sure how to perform on tv, he’s really nervous, and expresses that anxiousness through a lot of laughter. too much laughter. but it’s understandable, the guy was an unknown taking over for fan favorite letterman. but seeing that first episode’s awkward laughter and too-slow comedic pacing, it is a wonder to tune in now and see conan do his thing on late night. he owns it. he is perfect. he has become a true performer. he knows how to handle the crowd and make them laugh, he knows how to handle slip-ups in the show, he knows how to appear cool and very relaxed in his role as host. in 16 years he became the perfect host.
he belongs as host of the tonight show. i’m so intrigued to see how he fits into this new role. everything i’ve heard is “conan’s gonna have to grow up to make it on the tonight show” but on his last show of late night, he promised he wasn’t going to. reading interviews/articles about his new show recently though, i think that he knows he will have to reformat his unique brand of comedy just enough to keep the older viewers laughing along with the young kids. i don’t think it will be too much though. i think he’s almost got more freedom now if anything to do things with his comedy he hasn’t been able to before. on leno’s last show they showed a clip of a bit where conan has an academy award-winning makeup artist turn him into a completely different person and he hosts a focus group of old people watching clips of conan on late night to see how the older crowd likes him. i’m not sure what it was about it but right away it just felt like a little bit different kind of sketch than he would ever have done on late night. and it made me so excited to see what he’s got in store for the tonight show.
watching conan walk out onto the tonight show stage after being introduced by jay, hearing the crowd cheer for him, hearing the tonight show band playing conan’s theme song, the whole thing made me swell up with pride. conan is my tv hero. he was really gaining popularity as i started to watch him back around 2000 or 2001, and probably more than anything in the last ten years, conan has influenced my humor. it’s incredible too, because i haven’t even noticed it until the last year or so. conan’s comedy was so subtle in sneaking into my subconscious; his bits were just hilarious to me, the way he would mock his hair or his complexion or height, the immediate rapport he had with guests of all types, just from being a good conversationalist. all of this worked it’s way into my personality and has influenced me in big, big ways. and seeing him on leno’s last show was just great. i hadn’t seen conan do anything since his own last show last march, except for watching old late night sketches over getting amped for conan’s tonight show, and seeing him again do anything on tv was just so exciting. he really is the funniest real guy on tv. he knows how to talk to people, famous or non, he knows how to ask questions, he knows how to go with the flow when things don’t go exactly as scripted, he knows how to make people laugh, he knows how to make fun of himself, he knows how to make fun of others, he is extraordinarily good at improv, he will do just great as the host of the new tonight show. conan o’brien, i can’t wait. you are ushering me into my adult life. thanks.