People of Earth, the end is nigh. The details remain hazy, but the end of the briefest tenure in the history of “The Tonight Show” now seems certain. Just seven months after taking over the hosting helm, Conan O’Brien’s nights are numbered at NBC.
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That fact comes as no surprise to anyone who’s followed the schedule shuffle-turned-shake-up unfolding in headlines, open letters and all over late-night TV. Still, expected or not, it’s hardly welcome news for O’Brien fans. Members of Team Conan may support his decision to walk away before breaking a time-slot tradition 60 years in the making, but they’re sure to miss what made the show great.
Yes, great. Sure, those lagging ratings he suffered aren’t exactly the hallmarks of top TV, but as the host himself indicated in his must-read missive, there were extenuating factors (cough-lousyJayLenoleadin-cough). And the light audience never took away from O’Brien’s heavy humor, as evidenced by an impressive batch of bests gleaned from seven short months.
Starting off on the right foot
In his very first moment in “The Tonight Show” spotlight, O’Brien left his New York past behind with a mock coast-to-coast footrace. A long list of landmarks — from Guggenheim Museum to Capitol Records Tower — set the path for the new (and now soon-to-be old) host.
Younger viewers weren’t a problem for O’Brien, but he soon wondered how he’d fair with “The Tonight Show’s” senior set. It’s a simple set up that led to the “Conan O’Brien Focus Groups,” a series of real test audiences gathered to judge his most ridiculous past gags. A disguised O’Brien, in the role of the group’s ill-humored moderator, Stuart Wexler, boosted the elders’ sometimes sidesplitting, sometimes cringe-worthy “he’s just awful” reactions.
Shatner vs. Palin
In December, dueling dramatic readings made for one the most memorable bits on any version of “The Tonight Show.” First, Hollywood ham William Shatner took a hilarious and straight-faced turn at odd excerpts from Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue.” But it wasn’t long before he was matched, if not upstaged, by the former Alaskan governor’s own rendition of Shatner’s longwinded autobiography, “Up Till Now.”
Same as it ever was
Some of O’Brien’s “Late Night” standards failed to span the transcontinental trek, like the not-so-11:30 p.m.-friendly Masturbating Bear. But other longtime bits in bad taste and good humor made “The Tonight Show” trip just fine. Take everyone’s favorite pooch puppet, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Surprisingly, the cigar-chomping hound hardly cleaned up his dirty-dog act when he successfully transitioned to the earlier crowd.
O’Brien’s infamous and entertaining feud with Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker began after the host proposed a cure for what ails the people of Newark — a bus ticket out of town. Zing! Booker shot back, banning the big guy first from the Newark airport and eventually the whole state of New Jersey. Nevermind the fact that Booker never had the power to do so, as it was all in good fun. After all, the threats inspired a month’s worth of snappy back-and-forths that ended well for the fine folks of Newark. One last dig from the funnyman even earned Newark Now a $100,000 donation from O’Brien and NBC.
Celebrating the banality of celebrity tweets, O’Brien began a new “Tonight Show” tradition with “Twitter Tracker!” The oftrepeated gag featured A-list Twitter activity at its worst and most amusing. After all, nothing punches up Reese Witherspoon’s declaration that “sometimes being a mother can be so hard” like the ironic flair of a Monster Jam truck-show-style announcer. Gratuitous little blue bird bashing never hurts, either.
Going out on a high note
Reminding faithful viewers and scandal-drawn lookie-loos just what they soon will be missing, O’Brien’s final run has shown him at his top form. Apparently, there’s nothing like network tensions and a little predecessor rage to inspire the best in low-blow laughs. Whether he’s speculating on his future career opportunity in a Lifetime movie “about a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with her network,” or just giving Jay Leno what-for by reminding kids, “You can do anything you want in life … unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too,” O’Brien’s last nights certainly make for some of his best.
Ree Hines is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.