So, NBC, here’s what you bought: Since all this “Tonight Show” hoo-ha started, Conan O’Brien’s ratings on the flagship late-night show have soared, while “The Jay Leno Show” has been, eh, OK. In fact, the last few nights, Conan at 11:35 was doubling Jay’s audience at 10.
Granted, there are famous qualifiers, like Conan’s show ended last night, so it was the final Conan fix for at least seven months while Jay will be coming back. And Jay does have prime-time competition at 10.
Here’s an evener plane: Conan has just been a whole lot funnier in his shows since it became obvious the nimrods at NBC were going to choose Jay over Conan on “The Tonight Show. The most noteworthy thing that has happened on “The Jay Leno Show” the last couple of weeks was that Jimmy Kimmel, ABC’s late-night guy, came on and humiliated the host. Night-to-night, Leno has just seemed grumpy.
Watching Conan’s final nights, with jokes like buying Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and putting him in a mink Snuggie on NBC’s dime, it’s become sort of amazing that he’s the guy NBC is paying to leave while Leno is the one they felt they couldn’t let go. That’s management at NBC for you.
It could very well happen that Leno retakes The “Tonight Show” in March and by the time O’Brien is back on the air in September, assuming that is what happens, Leno is back to being the ratings champ late night. He was the undisputed champ in the ratings when he left “Tonight,” so right now most arguments that he won’t retake the throne are purely emotional.
But no one can say O’Brien didn’t go out like a champ.
He was rolling with guests like Robin Williams and Pee Wee Herman in previous nights, and last night featured surprises like Steve Carell coming out as the NBC employee who conducted Conan’s exit interview. Carell ended quoting George Clooney’s “Anybody who’s ever built an empire” line from “Up in the Air” and shredding Conan’s employee ID.
Tom Hanks, the man who dubbed Conan “CoCo,” came in like there was a cocktail party backstage and invited Conan to come to his house and do the show in his bedroom every night. Then Conan got incredible musician support with Neil Young singing “Long May You Run,” and a lineup of Billy Gibbons, Beck and Robert Randolph joining Will Ferrell and Conan, on guitar, for a rendition of “Freebird” to close out the show — you could pick on it as a musical performance, but that that would miss the point.
Most importantly though, after all the angst, O’Brien stopped right before the end of the show to say whatever he wanted about NBC. And what he said was that despite their current differences, NBC had been his television home for more than 20 years — first as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” and then as the host of “Late Night” and “The Tonight Show” — and he appreciated all the network had done for him. In fact, if NBC had not taken a chance on O’Brien as David Letterman’s successor on “Late Night,” he wouldn’t have been in “The Tonight Show” chair at all.
“Every comedian dreams of hosting ‘The Tonight Show’ and, for seven months, I got to,” he said. “I did it my way, with people I love, and I do not regret a second. I’ve had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-11 parking lot, we’ll find a way to make it fun.”
Finally, he admonished his viewers, “Please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism. It’s my least favorite quality and 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.”
It was every bit as classy as O’Brien’s “People of Earth” statement that he would not move “The Tonight Show” to 12:05 a.m.
Who knows where we will see him next, but O’Brien left looking like the better comic and better man.