There was once a joke on The Larry Sanders Show that went like this:
Paula (Janeane Garafalo) tried to bluff Larry (Garry Shandling) that she’s leaving to take a producers job at Conan (a fledgling series at the time of the early ’90s episode). Sanders asks how long she thinks that will last; Paula swallows hard and tells him she’ll be in early Monday.
That was 28 years ago; safe to say O’Brien, through his various TV incarnations, has had the last laugh.
The Massachusetts native outlasted his critics and eventually established his own successful brand in late night, so successful that when NBC finally gave him the prize he always wanted–The Tonight Show–it was a mistake. It was too late to box O’Brien into that old brand. He’d already helped define the new.
Which is precisely what he’s still doing. First on TBS, where he’s already spent eleven years in late night, ditching his band and adapting a half-hour format in 2019. Then there’s his fantastic podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. It’s much more of a personal endeavour, an audible adventure inside O’Brien’s ever-expanding noggin’, bringing endless surprises out of a wide range of guests.
Over the past few years, he’s built a sly little Team Coco podcast empire on the side. This Thursday, he folds his current TV tent (final guest: Jack Black) before streaming his act over at HBO Max. The man still has a lot of comedy left in him to give.
One thing O’Brien has mastered over the years is endings. His final Tonight Shows were breathtaking, crammed with comedy, music and great guests. He’s been pulling out all the stops again in the final days of Conan, with Martin Short, Bill Hader, Seth Rogan, Dana Carvey (Wednesday night) and Jack Black as Thursday’s final guest.
Paul Rudd was a surprise guest during Bill Hader’s episode Monday and, yes, he brought a clip (embedded above). Listen to how hard O’Brien laughs.
O’Brien, 58, is currently producing comedy specials, mostly featuring other comedians, for HBO Max. The plan is to eventually re-emerge on the streaming service with his own series, which will have a different format and become his fourth iteration in the talk-show genre.
At 28-years, O’Brien’is currently the iron man of late-night, broadcast, TV talk show hosts. Only David Letterman (33 years) and Johnny Carson (30; all with The Tonight Show) went longer.
Post-O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel becomes the senior member of the late-night club, working 18 years ands counting on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Lately, even Kimmel has hinted that he may not last that much longer. Working from home through the pandemic took the starch out of everybody the past 15 months.
O’Brien. who began his run at NBC in 1993, has been remarkably resilient. His “Team Coco” brand of smart and silly comedy plays everywhere, on live stages (as when he rocked Toronto’s Elgin Theatre for an unforgettable week in 2003) to podcasts, where Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend has been a must-listen for me these past two years. He’s even made his assistant Sona a podcast star, and has spun off podcast extensions with sidekick Andy Richter, JB Smoove, Rob Lowe and others.
His move to a streaming service will likely accelerate that trend. He follows Amber Ruffin (Peacock) and precedes The Trouble with Jon Stewart, coming to AppleTV+ later in 2021.
Catch Conan‘s finale Thursday at 11 p.m. ET/PT on TBS and at 11:45 p.m. on the CTV Comedy Channel.