Baltimore Sun

Conan O'Brien's final show at NBC: A very mixed bag

Blame it on Robin Williams.

I would like to tell you Conan O'Brien's last night as host of "The Tonight Show" was remarkable. But after the crazed and brilliant performance of Williams on Thursday, Friday's finale felt like anti-climax.


The evening had its moments. A surprise visit by Steve Carell as an NBC employee doing an exit interview with O'Brien was an inspired concept playing straight into the anti-corporate sentiment O'Brien had tapped with his "People of the Earth" statement last week rejecting NBC's plan to move his show back to 12:05 a.m. weeknights to accomodate Jay Leno's return to latenight. Carell's first question: "Would you describe  your experience here at NBC as positive, very positive or extremely positive?"

At the end of the segment, the audience booed when Carell asked for O'Brien's NBC ID card and then proceeded to shred it.


But the last hour of O'Brien's career at NBC could never find a tone or voice. In fairness, perhaps, it is because such departures from the workplace are such an intense experience that the person leaving bounces through various conflicting emotions minute to minute. That certainly seemed to be the case with O'Brien Friday night.

In direct contrast to the sarcasm and even anger O'Brien had shown toward NBC in recent nights, he did a near-180 degree turn with about 10 minutes left in the show, and delivered a speech about his final feelings toward the company that had gone out of its way the last two weeks to say what a failure he was as host of "The Tonight Show." O'Brien insisted the agreement he signed that resulted in a a $33 million severance package did not limit him from saying anything he wanted to say on-air Friday.

"And what I want to say is this," the 46-year-old Harvard graduate began. "Between my time at 'Saturday Night Live,' 'The Latenight Show' and my brief run here at 'The Tonight Show,' I have worked at NBC over 20 years. Yes, we have our differences right now. Yes, we're going our separate ways. But this company has been my home for most of my adult life, and I am enormously proud of the work we've done together. And  I want to thank NBC for making it all possible -- I really do."

He got a little choked up when he said, "Despite this sense of loss, I believe this should be a happy moment. Every comedian dreams of hosting 'The Tonight Show,' and for seven months, I got to do it my way with people I love. I do not regret one second of anything that we've done here."

He thanked his "fans" for "this massive outpouring of support and passion," saying their support made a "sad situation joyous and inspirational."

He concluded by saying, "All I ask is one thing, and I am asking this particularly of young people who watch: Please do not be cynical...."

He promised young people that if they work "really hard" and are "kind," "amazing things" will happen.

His final words from the chair Johnny Carson once occupied: "Ladies and gentlemen, let's make something amazing happen. Here to close out our show are a few good friends led by  Mr. Will Ferrell."


O'Brien got up from the desk, strapped on a guitar and joined Ferrell and a crew of all-star musicians for a jam version of "Free Bird." Let's just say there was nothing amazing about the concept or execution. I'm sorry, but that's the truth.

Neil Young did better about 15 minutes earlier with "Long May You Run." But maybe O'Brien didn't think that was big enough for the last number.

They should have booked Williams for Friday night -- not Thursday.

I clicked off the TV wishing for two things that Friday's finale should have but didn't provide: Some true sense of what O'Brien really felt about his treatment by NBC, and catharsis to the rollercoaster of emotions generated by the last two week's of O'Brien's short tenure as host of one of the most storied franchises in TV history.