Before watching the last-ever episode of TBS’s Conan, here’s a list of some of the things I watched, in no particular order, over the last week or so—Michael Apted’s landmark documentary 42 Up (1998), some episodes of the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1996), the Bollywood fists-and-giggles potboiler R. Rajkumar (2013) and some old episodes of the Cartoon Network series Ed, Edd n Eddy (1999-2009). For as long as I can remember, my brain has swung between studious and silly with the alacrity of an 8-year-old on a sugar high. Which is why I was thrilled to see Conan O’ Brien echoing similar sentiments during his farewell speech.
“I’ve devoted all of my adult life—all of it—to pursuing this strange phantom intersection between smart and stupid. And there’s a lot of people who believe the two cannot coexist, but god, I will tell you, it is something that I believe religiously. I think when smart and stupid come together, it’s very difficult, but if you can make it happen, I think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”
For over two decades, Conan has personified this “intersection between smart and stupid” on late night TV. The celebrity interview is a templatised bit of television that’s designed to be easy viewing, fast food entertainment, approachable for all comers. And yet, Conan’s signature self-effacing humour found a way to make it fun without making you turn your brain off (like Kimmel or Fallon would, for instance). It’s not like O’Brien wasn’t interested in talking about his more traditionally intellectual pursuits (indeed, during a 2012 interview with critic Wesley Morris, he spoke at length about his senior year thesis at Harvard, where he majored in History and Literature—it was called ‘Literary Progeria: The Old Child in the works of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor’).
It’s more like he understood the right time, the right place and the right amount of ironic distance required to pull off quote-unquote serious conversations on television. This was exemplified, most of all, in his ‘Conan Without Borders’ segments, where he travelled all across the globes, goofing off and doing physical comedy (the Haiti segment with the schoolkids comes to mind immediately)—but also delivering razor-sharp mini-lessons in history. If you think John Oliver and his team really do their homework, check out Conan in Italy and Finland and South Korea (that last one is my personal favorite, especially his bits with actor Steven Yeun from Minari).
Conan, however, showed us that it was possible to blend smart humour with empathy and a willingness to laugh at oneself.
Before Conan, smart comedians had the tendency to adopt an abrasive persona—see Bill Hicks, or early Letterman for example—as though shaming their audience into expanding their horizons. Conan, however, showed us that it was possible to blend smart humour with empathy and a willingness to laugh at oneself (the quality that an earlier generation would call “wearing one’s learning lightly”). Just look at the showbiz people who cite him as an influence today, who paid tribute to him on social media: Seth Myers, Kumal Nanjiani, John Krasinski, Colin Jost and so on. This is a hall-of-fame lineup for wholesome ‘nice guy’ personas in comedy.
Fittingly, the Conan finale was also a star-studded affair: the much-talked about ‘exit interview’ with Conan and Homer Simpson was funny, but ultimately more cutesy and meta-indulgent (Conan was a writer on The Simpsons in the early 90s, before his career in late night TV began). The real star turn came from two comedic veterans and old cronies of Conan—Will Ferrell and Jack Black. Black, of course, regaled us with a musical number. Ferrell, master of the farcical, even managed to weave in a recurring gag during his five minutes of screentime; the ruse was that Ferrell is starring in a “new, gritty” version of Batman where the Caped Crusader is a cunnilingus expert (referring to DC Comics’ latest storm-in-a-teacup). Ferrell, of course, once memorably did an entire episode of Conan as his anchor character Ron Burgundy.
Here, he made fun of the fact that he has now been a guest on the concluding episodes of each of Conan’s last three talk shows: Late Night With Conan O’Brien (1993-2009), The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien (2009-2010) and now Conan. Ferrell offered to pre-record farewell segments for the “next few shows of yours that’ll flame out”, including an MTV prank show and a Delta Airlines in-flight talk show (in reality, Conan’s next is going to be a weekly variety show with HBO Max).
Neither Ferrell nor Black referred to the Jay Leno-shaped elephant in the room, however. That was left to Jimmy Kimmel, who bid farewell to Conan during his monologue a few days before the Conan finale. He said, “We look forward to whatever you have planned next at HBO Max. And I also want to say, congratulations to Jay Leno on his new time slot at TBS.” This was in reference to the fact that in 2009, Conan briefly took over The Tonight Show from Leno, before a combination of low ratings and star pressure from Leno made CBS decide to push Conan back to a post-midnight time slot, after Leno’s original 11:35 pm show. In response, Conan quit CBS and started hosting the all-new Conan on TBS.
Conan joked that now that his network television days are over, he is free to go on his “obligatory downward spiral”. But something tells me that even at the relatively unhurried pace of a weekly streaming show, he will find a way to make things urgent, accessible and yes—smart as ever.