‘Conan’ Is Over, but Conan O’Brien Isn’t Going Anywhere

The late-night host found hilarity in the "phantom intersection between smart and stupid." Now's the time to revisit his nearly three decades of material, while we wait for what's next.
Conan O'Brien Conan goodbye last show
Conan O'Brien says goodbye to "Conan"
Courtesy of Team Coco / TBS

Conan” is over, but Conan O’Brien isn’t going anywhere. Not really.

After 28 years behind three nightly talk show desks, Hollywood’s Boston-Irish ambassador (sorry Mark Wahlberg) wrapped one last week of programming on Thursday. A hobbled Jack Black still stood for O’Brien’s big going away number. Homer Simpson showed up to mock the monorail episode of “The Simpsons” that O’Brien wrote, while the host himself spent his final 15 minutes paying tribute to his writers, producers, band, family, and many of the other less-heralded folks who helped him move from “Late Night” to “The Tonight Show” to “Conan,” before sharing these parting words.

“I have devoted all of my adult life, all of it, to pursuing this strange, phantom intersection between smart and stupid,” he said. “There are a lot of people who believe the two cannot co-exist, but God, I will tell you, it is something I believe religiously: When smart and stupid come together— it’s very difficult, but I think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”

O’Brien has said many times in the past that his favorite kind of comedy isn’t topical; it’s not the political jokes or timely references that can lose their luster months, weeks, or even days after they’re uttered. He prefers silly (yet smart) comedy that can exist in a human moment between two people. It’s why his interviews were so consistently enjoyable, and it’s also why he was able to find such success in his travel shows. He’s a master of observation, a great listener, and a genuinely curious comedian.

That timeless style is also the first reason not to mourn O’Brien’s departure from nightly television too keenly. Thanks to Team Coco, there are thousands of videos to discover on YouTube — more than any fan could reasonably be expected to watch in their lifetime. Just this morning, I’ve gone back and found behind-the-scenes footage of Conan in Italy, fantastic conversations with Steven Yeun and Bill Hader, as well as plenty of diversions that threatened to eat up my entire morning, rather than writing this.

In an interview with Vulture’s Joe Adalian, O’Brien marveled at the way viewers were still interacting with his legacy content. “It’s the natural state of things as you get older to get grumpy and think, ‘Well, it’s not the way it was in my day!'” O’Brien said. “And I have found the opposite to be true, which is: I keep looking at how much the internet has helped perpetuate comedy. I meet people all the time who say, ‘Oh my God, last night I was watching ‘Conan’ remotes, and I watched this one,’ and I’ll go, ‘Wait a minute, this is from 1997, and this person is 18 and they watched it last night on YouTube.’ I find that to be exhilarating.”

O’Brien’s legacy is ensured by the amount of material he’s produced, modern audience’s proclivities for catching up on their own time, and his evergreen attitude toward humor. While saying anything will always be funny is inviting disaster, O’Brien’s 4,000-plus shows have already proven impressively sustainable. There’s no reason to think they’ll simply peter out.

Nor is there reason to think O’Brien will either. In November 2020, WarnerMedia announced the late-night host would be moving from TBS to HBO Max for a weekly variety series instead of a nightly talk show. Details are scarce on what his new show will look like, or when, exactly, it will premiere, but its existence is only part of the second reason “Conan” ending isn’t the end of the world. He’s an eager creator; an adapter; a man looking for what’s new, even as he revels in timeless jokes. Just look at his podcast, “Conan Needs a Friend,” which he’s still excitedly producing and should help keep a steady flow of O’Brien in our lives until his onscreen return. Or revisit O’Brien’s travel series, which burst out of the “Conan” format into their own standalone specials.

O’Brien may be saying goodbye to nightly shows. Losing his regular presence may be jarring for the tens of thousands who tuned in every night and the many more who checked in regularly via YouTube. But no one has seen everything O’Brien has produced, and we haven’t seen the last of his “stupid and smart” creations — not by a longshot.

“My advice to anyone watching right now — it’s not easy to do, it’s not easy to do, it’s not easy to do — but try and do what you love with people you love, and if you can manage that, it’s the definition of heaven on earth. I swear to God, it really is,” he said. “So good night. Thank you very much.”

“Conan” is over, but let’s not treat it like a death — not when he’s still chasing that little slice of heaven.

Watch Conan O’Brien’s farewell to “Conan” below.

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