After almost 30 years of sitting behind a wooden desk with nothing but a pencil and his trusty Dwight D. Eisenhower mug, Conan O’Brien ends his third iteration of a talk show, this time with TBS (Turner Broadcasting System) after 11 seasons on June 24, 2021.
One of television’s longest-running late-night hosts, O’Brien announced in November 2020 that he decided to wrap up the show and move forward onto what is yet to be revealed format of a new weekly variety program on HBO Max. A move that can hugely impact the genre for years to come.
The situation seems all too familiar from two years ago when he announced in 2019 that the show was adopting a new format shifting to a 30-minute program from its previous full-hour staple. In a move preceded by a three-month hiatus of the show, O’Brien, with his patented self-deprecating sense of humor, returned to the stage sans the constant suit and tie sported a more casual wardrobe calling his new look the “hip biology teacher.”
In his open monologue then, O’Brien was quick to assuage fans’ worry that despite the half-hour shift, it would surely feel like two hours. The shortened runtime did not equate to less Conan content.
In fact, this brought more opportunities for the Emmy Award-winning host to shoot more remote segments and experimental on-location collaboration with his guests. Sometimes even with his staff and crew—the fan favorites, Conan’s assistant Sona Movesesian and associate producer Jordan Schlansky.
That’s what separates O’Brien from his peers on the bigger networks. His decision to remain a distinct personality on television. The antics on the show that are predicated on his willingness to portray the fool.
The origins of the late-night talk show format
Admittedly faring below the popularity with the likes of the Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Falon, Stephen Colbert, and James Corden, O’Brien stands as a sole flag-bearer of tradition in the culture of late night television set by the standards of Johnny Carson, arguably one of the personalities that elevated the medium as an art form.
In Bernard Timberg and Robert Erler’s book, Television Talk: A History of the TV Talk Show, the craft originates from the convening of 50 years of television and 30 years of radio that preceded it.
The late-night talk show format, which originated in the United States, was first hosted by American film actress Faye Emerson in 1949 titled The Faye Emerson Show—rightfully earning her nickname “The First Lady of Television.” A moniker the media probably had attributed to her as US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s daughter-in-law.
Nevertheless, the late stage actress foray as interviewer was pivotal for women in television in the ‘50s. The platform enabled her to express her political views at a time where such opportunities were few and far between.
It was Johnny Carson, however, in his three-decade run from the ‘60s into the early ‘90s who has perfected the American late-night talk show into the icon that it is today, and that many others strive to emulate.
Back then, producers wanted the sets to reflect a casual conversation in one’s living room. Hence, the integration of couches and coffee tables with the interior. A visual that is seen and had persisted in today’s talk shows.
Carrying the torch of late-night
O’Brien has always been considered the oddball in the history of late-night, yet he represents both the tradition and the future as one of the old guards of the genre since he took over from the legendary David Letterman in 1993.
From the inclusion of the house band to the greenery that actor-comedian Zach Galifianakis hilariously parodied in his Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis in 2008, the talk shows for the past 50 years have all borrowed from what Carson established back then.
Before taking over for Letterman, he was a writer for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live—both equally impressive; and sure, the degree from Harvard isn’t hurting his chances either, but critics were early to write him off.
In an opinion piece from the New York Times in 1993, a writer wrote: “Unfazed by the lukewarm reaction to this ill-conceived prank, Mr. O'Brien launched into his monologue. Whipping out a large book, he read a string of childish ‘knock-knock’ jokes. While the material was fair, Mr. O'Brien's delivery was halting, and he paused several times to adjust his reading glasses.”
That writer was O’Brien himself. Not only did he open with knock-knock jokes, he openly reviewed the pilot episode of his show as a failure with the title “O’Brien Flops!”
But he improved immensely from merely a placeholder to one of the most recognizable late-night personalities. Carrying with him the old Carson tradition of promoting up-and-coming comedians on national television. In 2017 alone, O’Brien had 41 stand-up sets while his rivals Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and James Corden had 16, 15, and 8 respectively.
If you watch a compilation of his best late-night moments, besides the difference in video quality, the segments all contain what could only be described as uniquely Conan. Even his hair stays the perfectly iconic coiffed hairdo.
The Conan Without Borders is just another example of what separates O’Brien from his peers currently on the bigger network late night talk shows. The decision to move away from the formulaic segments and the long-form interviews underscores his desire to propel the medium to new heights.
As a host and performer, he’s not dependent on the star power of his guests alone. There are many moments in all his shows that his sidekick Andy Richter would just the steal the show. Not as a laugh track who just reacts to the host but a definitive co-host to O’Brien.
In his recent interview with Vulture, he mentioned the need to innovate and freshen things up.
We see this with the launch of his podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, where the interviews are not just a longer form of promotion for a book, movie, and series. Maybe this was a precursor that enabled him to see that there is life post-late-night, and it is a direction that can also align with his desire to do more travel shows in the future.
And in true Conan fashion during his farewell episode, he parted with the staff and crew of the show genuinely but never forgetting a punch-line or two while clearly holding back emotionally.
His late-night show may be gone, but his tendency to constantly reinvent himself is promising enough in anticipation for the debut of his weekly variety on HBO Max. After all, streaming is the most likely medium people will prefer in the coming years.