Welcome to the Blade blog Culture Shock, a three-times-a-week riff by Pop Culture Editor Kirk Baird on pop culture news, events, and trends. The blog will appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings here, with the odd night or off-day posting if something is merited.
"We've had a lot of fun being here these last seven months, but like everything in life, the fun has to come to an end a decade too early. That's just an old motto I was taught a long time ago."
And with that somber joke as part of Conan O'Brien's opening monologue, the lame-duck, red-haired late-night host launched into his Tonight Show swan song.
After hosting The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien for seven months, O'Brien left the late-night institution and his network home of two decades.
As part of his agreement with NBC, which includes a $45 million payout, O'Brien cannot take another late-night gig for another seven months. And he joked with longtime sidekick Andy Richter that their roles could be reversed, and Richter could host a late-night show of his own with O'Brien as the sidekick.
O'Brien followed that joke with a reference to the NBC late-night debacle of the early 1990s, when Jay Leno and David Letterman fought over who would inherit The Tonight Show after Johnny Carson stepped down. The mess was made into a book and later an HBO series, The Late Shift.
O'Brien asked HBO, "when you make the movie about this whole NBC late-night fiasco, I would like to be played by Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton." The gag was punctuated by side-by-side images of Swinton and O'Brien who do look eerily similar.
O'Brien seemed loose, jovial, and clearly relieved to have this network mess behind him. He showed a brief best-of montage, and featured another sketch in which he supposedly spent millions of NBC dollars on a bit that wasn't meant to be funny so much as to run-up his NBC credit card. In this case, a fossil skeleton of a giant sloth that sprayed caviar on a Picasso painting. The gag, as O'Brien reminded the gullible, was just that, a gag.
Surprise guest Steve Carell of NBC's The Office popped up to give O'Brien a network exit interview. Tom Hanks was next, shuffling onstage with two glasses of scotch (it wasn't) to celebrate Coco, as Hanks called O'Brien months earlier, thereby creating a nickname for the host and, later, a rally name for his fans, Team Coco.
O'Brien said his musical guest, Neil Young, reached out to him as soon as he learned about the host's imminent departure from The Tonight Show. Young performed an acoustic version of "Long May You Run," a fitting choice for the occasion: "We've been through some things together/With trunks of memories still to come. We found things to do in stormy weather/Long may you run. Long may you run/Long may you run. Although these changes have come/With your chrome heart shining in the sun, long may you run."
Things took a serious turn, though, as O'Brien addressed fans in the audience and across the country for the last time an NBC employee.
"Tonight I really am allowed to say whatever I want and what I want to say is this. Between my time at Saturday Night Live, The Late Night show, and my brief run here onThe Tonight Show, I've worked with NBC for 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. I'm enormously proud of the work we've done together and I want to thank NBC for making it all possible. I really do. A lot of people have been asking me about my state of mind, and I'll be honestly with you, walking away from The Tonight Show is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Making this choice has been enormously difficult. This is the best job in the world I absolutely love doing it. I have the best staff and crew in the history of the medium … but despite this sense of loss, I really feel this should be a happy moment. Every comedian – every comedian – dreams of hosting The Tonight Show, and for seven months I got to do it. I did it my way with people I love and I do not regret for one second anything we've done here."
"I encounter people when I walk on the street now who give me a sad look … I have had more good fortune than anybody I know. And if our next gig is in a 7-Eleven parking lot, we will find a way to make it fun. We really will."
"Finally, I have something to say to our fans. This massive outpouring of support and passion from so many people has been overwhelming for me. The rallies, the signs, all this goofy outrageous creativity on the Internet. The fact that people have traveled long distances and have camped out all night in the pouring rain … to be in our audience. Here's what all of you have done. You've made a sad situation joyous and inspirational. So to all the people watching (voice starts to crack), I can never thank you enough for the kindness to me. I'll think about it for the rest of my life. And all I ask is one thing, and I'm asking this particularly of young people that watch. Please do not be cynical. 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. I'm telling you, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you (as audience applauds), it's just true."
It was a classy speech by someone, who, though put in a difficult situation by his network bosses, has handled the situation as well as anyone could be expected to. Those few seconds when O'Brien, always the clown, let his guard down and the real emotion cracked through, however briefly, was a reminder that, despite all the jokes, he is like anyone else.
As Shylock said in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" O'Brien showed his human side Friday night, and reminded us all that, despite the jokes, his treatment by NBC stings. Just like if anyone had their prom date dump them mid-dance for someone else.
O'Brien then steered the emotions into comedy. Like any good comic, he saved his best for last, as he strapped on an electric guitar and joined Will Ferrell -- channeling Ronnie Van Zant -- along with Beck, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, and Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens (at least, I think it was him. [UPDATE: It was NOT Pat DiNizio, but Jimmy Vivino, a DiNizio lookalike and member of O'Brien's band, Max Weinberg and the Tonight Show Band]) for a rousing and, with Ferrell leading the way, gut-busting rendition of “Free Bird.”
With an American flag as a backdrop, the song poignantly captured the moment. O'Brien is a free bird, and this bird you cannot change.
With the NBC late-night mess coming to an end — at least until Leno and Letterman square off again, and certainly if O'Brien joins them in the fall with his own show — I'm winding down the Culture Shock coverage.
Until then, I put together a selection of scathing quips from the late-night hosts about this mess, much of it culled from TVguide.com and YouTube clips.
Frankly, this debacle has re-energized late-night television on NBC, CBS, and ABC in a way we haven't seen since the great Leno-Letterman feud of the early 1990s. To read a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of that NBC bungle, check out this story on the NY Times Website. (Thanks to reader Holly for passing the link along.)
So, swing by Culture Shock later this weekend to read my thoughts on O'Brien's exit. Meanwhile, a recap of the jokes ...
“With the all the controversy going on here at NBC, actually, The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien's ratings have gone up. They've gone up. So you're welcome!”
“Sarah Palin has signed with Fox News to be a correspondent. In a statement today, Fox said if Miss Palin does a good job, they'll sign her to a long-term contract. If she doesn't work out, they'll just blame Leno.”
“NBC said the [prime-time] show performed exactly as they expected it would, and then they canceled us. When we were on late night, we performed better than expected, and they canceled us. That was totally different.
“NBC said they wanted drama at 10. Now they've got it.”
“I take pride in one thing: I leave NBC prime time the same way as I found it: a complete disaster.”
“Letterman has been hammering me every night.... You know the best way to get Letterman to ignore you? Marry him.”
“A study here at UCLA found that blaming others in the workplace is socially contagious. Not taking personal responsibility and blaming others at work actually becomes contagious in companies. Thank God, nothing like that happens here at NBC.”
“[I may] leave television altogether and work in a classier business with better people, like hard-core porn.”
“In the movie I'd be having sex with a beautiful woman and just as we're about to climax, I get replaced by Jay Leno.”
On NBC's efforts to improve the Winter Olympics:
“[They] reserve the right to cancel ski jumps mid-jump” and “move the bronze into gold's place, silver stays where it is, and add a new medal for fourth place called The NBC.”
On NBC's suggestion to bump back The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien a half-hour to 12:05 a.m.: “It's an amazing show, airing who knows when?”
“Good evening, everybody. I'm Conan O'Brien, the new host of Last Call with Carson Daly.”
“[A recent California earthquake] was so powerful it knocked Jay Leno's show from 10 o'clock to 11:35.”
“Everybody wants to know what my plans are. Everyone's asking me. All I can say is I plan to keep putting on a great show night after night while stealing as many office supplies as humanly possible. I'm going to rob this place blind. I got 10 cartridges of toner shoved in my pants right now — just jammed down there.”
“It's been reported that before I agree to a final settlement with this network I want to make sure NBC takes care of my staff. At first they thought I was gullible — they said the staff would be taken to a big farm where they'd be allowed to run free forever.”
“Cold outside, isn't it lousy cold outside today? Whoo! You know, they say, from the weather bureau ... it's caused by an arctic chill between Jay and Conan.”
“Our good friend Ricky Gervais will be hosting the Golden Globes, if Jay lets him.”
“So Conan O'Brien says yesterday, ‘Well, I'm not doing The Tonight Show at 12:05,' and you think about it, well, he's right. The Tonight Show, that would, you know, that's the next day. It's not really — it's like The Day After or, what it used to be, The Tomorrow Show. So he said, ‘Forget it, I'm not doing the show at 12:05.' Well, NBC went back to him, and they decided to sweeten the deal — they offered him 12:04.”
“The whole idea of this was NBC wanted to get a thing going whereby they wouldn't make the same mistake they made when Johnny quit and retired, that there were a lot of bad feelings. They wanted to avoid causing more bad feelings — well, mission accomplished.”
“I want to tell you something, I have not been this entertained by NBC since Balloon Boy threw up on the Today show.”
“Things are getting interesting in late-night television. Chaos and craziness and mayhem — a couple of minutes ago, Conan O'Brien ... announced that he would not follow Jay Leno at 12:05. Yeah, so you know what this means — that's right, I knocked off another competitor.”
“Al-Qaida is claiming responsibility for the wreckage at NBC.”
“I got a call just before I came out here from NBC, and they said, ‘Look, look, we still don't want you back.'”
“Let me ask you this ... are you fascinated by legal detail? Listen to this: Conan O'Brien, he had The Tonight Show and now he's leaving, and NBC is negotiating with him ... he can't take his signature comedy bits with him. But that's OK, Jay will take them.”
“I know. I know, it's not [Leno's] fault. But it isn't funny that he always turns up at the scene of a crime.”
“Jimmy Kimmel was so convincing as Leno, today, NBC canceled him.”
JIMMY KIMMEL (impersonating Jay Leno):
"Let it hereby be known that I'm taking over all the shows in late night."
"It's great to be here on ABC. ... Do you know what ABC stands for? Always Bump Conan."
"Conan O'Brien today announced he is leaving NBC. He released a statement today that said, 'I won't participate in the destruction of The Tonight Show. Fortunately, though, I will."
"This is the rumor I've heard ... Jay moves to 11:30 and he does a half-hour show between 11:30 and 12. Then Conan does 12 to 1. And then [Jimmy] Fallon does 1 to 2. That's what the rumor is ... and I'm thinking, Where's Carson Daly in all of this."
"I have to tell you, when I watch NBC making this terrible mess of the schedule ... I think, [maniacal laugh]. It's kind of like when you're playing a game of football and there's a guy coming to tackle you and he kind of trips and you go [laughs as he points]."
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LINK: For all of Kirk Baird's Culture Shock riffs