Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
For the first time since 1993 (aside from a brief period in 2010), Conan O’Brien will not have a late-night television show. The last edition of “Conan” rolls out on TBS Thursday night.
He does have something new planned for TV — a series on WarnerMedia’s HBO Max that is being labeled a variety-style show. (WarnerMedia is CNN’s parent company.) Whatever it is, Conan will surely be funny; because, when all the Sturm und Drang of his late-night career is put to one side (and there was surely a lot of that), what stands out is how original and truly off-the wall his comedic style — and mind — has been. If you got him, that is. I have had numerous experiences with people who asked me why Conan was such a big deal because they found him odd and off-putting, not funny in the least. My response always acknowledged that humor is personal, and few comedians have been universally celebrated as hilarious; but that I could only tell them that I personally found much of his show brilliantly inventive and funny, and that I had been in the presence of many people who considered Conan a rare and perhaps unmatched comic genius.I had seen some of those people line up in the heat of a Manhattan summer to get inside the Beacon Theatre to see one of Conan’s anniversary shows while he worked at NBC’s “Late Night.” On one occasion, I had seen an especially enthused guy wearing a T-shirt that read: “I took Conan for my Confirmation name!”In Eugene, Oregon, where Conan did the first show on his national tour while on his hiatus from TV, I watched a screaming horde of fans, still soaked from standing for hours outside in the rain, crawl over each other to try to touch him when he walked through the aisles of the arena playing his guitar. And then I saw many of those same fans swarm the concession stands to buy “Team Coco” merchandise — hats, T-shirts, posters.Read More Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerConan O’Brien is seen backstage on the set of his show “Conan” in 2019. He’s been a late-night host for nearly 30 years.Hide Caption 1 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerConan O’Brien is seen backstage on the set of his show “Conan” in 2019. He’s been a late-night host for nearly 30 years.Hide Caption 2 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien is the guest as he appears on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” in 1996. In 2009, O’Brien would replace Leno as “The Tonight Show” host — at least for a short while.Hide Caption 3 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien does a skit with his longtime show sidekick, comedian Andy Richter, in 1996. Richter has been a part of O’Brien’s show for much of his late-night run.Hide Caption 4 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien delivers a monologue as he hosts an episode of “Saturday Night Live” in 2001. Before he became famous, O’Brien was a writer for the show.Hide Caption 5 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien warms up the crowd at one of his “Late Night” tapings.Hide Caption 6 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien takes a photo of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates during the Consumer Electronics Show in 2005.Hide Caption 7 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien hands a Valentine’s Day present to Finnish President Tarja Halonen as he visited the presidential palace in Helsinki in 2006. O’Brien’s resemblance to Halonen became a recurring bit on his show, and he eventually traveled to meet her and do a special episode from Finland.Hide Caption 8 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien jokes around with fellow talk-show hosts Stephen Colbert, left, and Jon Stewart during a “Late Night” episode in 2008.Hide Caption 9 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien does a Christmas segment with boxing legend Mike Tyson and longtime show performers Andy Richter and Max Weinberg in 2009. O’Brien replaced Jay Leno as host of “The Tonight Show” earlier that year, but he didn’t stay there for long.Hide Caption 10 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien is joined by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, one of his show’s most iconic characters, in 2009.Hide Caption 11 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien’s last episode of “The Tonight Show” aired on January 22, 2010, less than a year after he started. With ratings flagging, NBC wanted to move Jay Leno back into late night and push “The Tonight Show” to a later time slot to accommodate Leno’s new show. O’Brien refused the time change and left. But during his farewell show, O’Brien had a hopeful message for his audience. “All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people that watch: Please do not be cynical,” he said. “I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least-favorite quality — it doesn’t lead anywhere. 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.” Hide Caption 12 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien appears on Letterman’s show in 2012. They discussed O’Brien’s short-lived stint as host of “The Tonight Show” and had some fun at Jay Leno’s expense.Hide Caption 13 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien jokes with President Barack Obama as he hosted the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2013. It was O’Brien’s second time hosting the event. He also hosted in 1995.Hide Caption 14 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien hosts the MTV Movie Awards in 2014.Hide Caption 15 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien wears a bomb disposal suit as he taped episodes of his “Conan” show in Qatar in 2015. O’Brien traveled to Qatar along with first lady Michelle Obama, and he also entertained US troops who were stationed there.Hide Caption 16 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien dances in Cuba in 2015. He became the first American late-night host to do a show in Cuba in more than 50 years.Hide Caption 17 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien speaks on stage during a gala tribute to comedian Steve Martin in 2015.Hide Caption 18 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien poses for a photo with journalist Jorge Ramos as they walk in Mexico City in 2017. O’Brien taped an episode of his show in Mexico to “do something positive” after the tensing of US-Mexico relations.Hide Caption 19 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien fist-bumps basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal during a Turner Upfront show in 2017.Hide Caption 20 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien tapes a segment while visiting Japan in 2018.Hide Caption 21 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien goofs around with Stephen Colbert while appearing on “The Late Show” in 2019.Hide Caption 22 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien visits Ghana with his show in 2019.Hide Caption 23 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien does a segment about “The Two Popes” in 2020.Hide Caption 24 of 25 Photos: Conan O'Brien's late-night careerO’Brien’s last “Conan” show will air on June 24, 2021. The show has been on TBS since 2010.Hide Caption 25 of 25For a generation of American TV viewers, those who went to college in the late 90’s and through the first decade of the new century, Conan was their guy. Nobody else was close.Given where he came from, this was an amazing achievement, one that few or maybe no other TV star has ever matched. It’s a now familiar tale, but Conan’s success in late night is not unlike an MVP ballplayer having started out as a kid stepping out of the stands at Fenway Park and taking Ted Williams’s spot in the Red Sox batting order.That was the comparison Conan himself made to me about his unlikely ascension to the job hosting the NBC show David Letterman had created. (He suggested the ballplayer would have worn a uniform with the number “17 and a half” and had a name like “Chip Whitley.”)A respected young comedy writer for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons,” Conan took over “Late Night” in 1993 with no real performing experience at all. He did a now-famous audition show for NBC, which showed him to be clever and likeable, but painfully awkward.His early months as host contained a steady stream of wildly absurd sketches and flashes of real wit, but an equal portion of moments where the show looked like something produced in a nice Irish kid’s rec room. Those moments so distressed NBC that the network offered Conan a 13-week contract at one point, stringing him along with assurances of a new deal that never came. Then, as I wrote about in The New York Times, NBC said it was only going to keep him on the air week-to-week. Conan came back from that low point spectacularly, giving NBC 16 years of a hit late-night show.As bitter as that initial fight for survival was, it could never, of course, match the turn of events that resulted in Conan losing his shot at hosting “The Tonight Show” in 2010, after just seven months. NBC’s plan to install his predecessor Jay Leno in a 10 p.m. show failed, so the network proposed moving Leno to O’Brien’s slot at 11:35 p.m. O’Brien refused to be bumped to 12:05 a.m. and decided to move on. No assessment of Conan’s career is ever going to leave out the network battles he was compelled to engage in to keep his place in late night alive. But in the end, they don’t really matter.Conan O'Brien's move to streaming seemed inevitable. But late-night TV is far from deadWhat matters in the careers of the individuals who put themselves front and center four or five nights a week as hosts of the American phenomenon known as a late-night show is whether or not they made significant contributions to the genre; whether their best material stands up over time as fresh, creative, original comedy.Conan passes that test with high honors.Conan has said that he believes his brand of comedy would be found in a Venn diagram where smart meets silly. I think it might be called sophisticated silliness.The levels of comic absurdity Conan reached from his three different late-night shows are like nothing else ever created for television.That’s what really matters about his career as a late-night star. He was always ambitious, always trying to lift his show and the late-night genre to a more creative, imaginative, funnier level. He leaves behind no doubt: He accomplished all of that.
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