After almost 30 years, Conan O’Brien is stepping away from late-night TV, choosing to focus on projects like a weekly variety show on HBO Max and his podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend. It’s a wise move for Conan, who often shines brightest when left to his own longer-form devices, like remote segments or charming travel specials. That being said, it’s still a blow to #TeamCoco diehards like the fans who went hard for him following his ill-fated Tonight Show run, or those who, like Bill Hader, found Conan in the early 1990s and identified with his absurdist humor. To get a glimpse into the fandom and what Conan’s last few late nights in front of a live audience were like, we nabbed a ticket to one of the final tapings—the June 14 episode, with special guest Patton Oswalt—to check it out for ourselves. Here’s what we took away.
When I first saw Conan O’Brien live, it was the year 2000, and he was still string-dancing around 30 Rockefeller Center as the host of Late Night With Conan O’Brien. (Dana Carvey was the topline guest that taping.) The crowd was all twenty- and thirtysomethings itching for a glimpse at Conan’s manic energy and outsider integrity. In many ways, the crowd at this taping on June 13 (which aired the following night) was the same, some 20-odd years later. Most people in the audience barely looked old enough to remember when Late Night debuted in 1993, if they were even born then. That could just be the kind of audience TV tapings tend to pull—especially ones that require lightning-fast fingers to secure tickets online—but instead it felt more like the crowd was there because they’d fallen in love with Conan’s online persona through YouTube videos and his podcast. When Conan did the string dance after taking the stage, there were a few “woo”s, but some members of the crowd seemed even more enchanted when they spotted Conan’s assistant and podcast co-host Sona Movsesian on the way out of the theater.
Sure, Conan O’Brien’s been getting top billing since 1993, but Andy Richter also deserves a shoutout as this all comes to an end. Not since Ed McMahon has there been a better late-night sideman. What Andy does requires real skill, and as “end of an era” pieces focus on Conan, it’s worth noting that Andy, along with a few other writers, producers, and band members, has been on board with him for almost the whole ride. Andy’s had a hell of a run, and more recent Conan converts—like the person near me in the crowd who said, “That guy should get his own show”—should really investigate some of his other projects, including two sitcoms, Andy Barker, P.I. and Andy Richter Controls The Universe, both of which are criminally underappreciated.
There’s not much more to it than the statement above, but it feels surreal to be packed shoulder to shoulder in a live audience in 2021. Granted, everyone was wearing masks and had to present their completed vaccination cards to get in the door, but strangers touching me? Particles flying as people whooped and hollered? Totally weird. All of this re-entering the world is going to take some getting used to, I think.
When Conan took the stage, he seemed excited, especially given that the taping was his first back in front of a live audience since the pandemic began. He admitted he missed the energy and attention, something that’s come up on his podcast, where he often jokes with Movsesian about his constant hunger for positive reinforcement. Still, it didn’t seem like Conan was operating at 100% capacity. He didn’t have the fervor or fever I witnessed when I first saw him over 20 years ago. Then, he spent a good portion of time before the show doing crowd work and even dancing. Now, almost two decades later, he doesn’t seem as interested in engaging. The show even underwent a restructuring back in 2019, going from a more traditional one-hour, multi-guest format to a more focused, one guest, 30-minute chat show. It’s understandable; he’s done almost 4,500 episodes of his late-night show in one form or another, and that has to wear on a person. If the passion for the project isn’t there anymore, we can’t blame Conan for stepping away.
When Conan started his podcast, it seemed like a lark, a new project for the host to dabble in as part of the “see how far I’ve fallen” riff that he’s so often applied to his career. It took off, though, garnering about one million downloads per episode its first season and earning Conan praise from publications like Variety, which called him “the darling of the podcasting world,” much to Marc Maron’s consternation. Conan has also found flexibility and freedom in his frequent travel specials, which have taken him everywhere from Ghana to Greenland. At the taping we attended, the biggest laughs came during two pre-taped clips videos: one featuring highlights from Conan’s Clueless Gamer segments and another capturing a 2013 trip he made to the American Girl store. Videos harkening back to Conan’s oddball history have also gotten online traction in Conan’s final run, including of Paul Rudd slipping one final Mac & Me clip into the program and Conan’s wildly popular shows during San Diego Comic-Con.
Though Conan has long been a late-night host, perhaps it’s the audience’s conceptions of what late-night has to be that has kept him from finding true success in more recent years. With a move to streaming, perhaps he can find a fluidity of programming that can help him thrive. What if one episode of his new show was just a roundtable with ex-presidents, and another was just Conan goofing around on a Marvel set? Maybe a Jack White jam session, and then Conan’s guide to France? If Conan’s promised variety show is nimble enough to capture everything from the wit and wisdom of his long-form chats to the pure silliness of any of his remote bits, then we’re absolutely on board for that.
The one-hour final episode of Conan airs Thursday, June 24 at 11 p.m. Eastern on TBS. Jack Black is the guest.