O’Brien’s departure feels like the end of an era for late-night TV

Conan O’Brien bid farewell to late-night television this week (at least for the moment) and in many ways, it feels like the end of an era. 

He debuted late in the world Johnny built — 1993 — as the replacement for David Letterman. The “Late Night” host, long considered Carson’s natural successor for the “Tonight Show” gig, had just been “Leno-ed” and was taking his talents to CBS. 

Lorne Michaels contacted O’Brien, who had worked on “Saturday Night Live” as a writer prior to writing for “The Simpsons” with an idea to produce the new Late Night. His agent stressed he’d rather perform, and long story short, he wound up as the host.

To say it was a rocky start would be generous. I had been a huge fan of the Carson/Letterman block and was bound to follow Dave to CBS, but it was impossible to miss O’Brien’s less-than-warm reception. Critics were not kind.

I remember watching the nervous, fidgety host over the aerial on my college apartment‘s color 19-inch (high tech in those days) one evening and thinking “he won’t last.” I had only tuned in myself because a friend said I bore a striking resemblance to him, a fact further supported by a couple of golfers I had been paired with who persisted to call me “Conan” for 18 holes (though they pronounced it like the Barbarian, probably due to my hacking on the course).

But something happened over the first couple of years. The show found its footing. A blessing from Letterman was a big boost. O’Brien’s self-deprecating persona and offbeat humor gelled. He began to win over those critics and win awards. On top of that, television is a cutthroat business, but he seemed genuine. Importantly, like Letterman’s “Late Night,” he delivered a younger demographic than the “Tonight Show,” which made him seem a natural to someday take over the big desk.

By 2009, the opportunity to achieve that life-long dream arrived, but while he got a little further than Letterman, in the end, he too got “Leno-ed.” Books have been written about O’Brien’s short stint on the “Tonight Show,” but suffice to say, not many blamed Conan for the chaos.  Stories at the time had him seeing his staff was compensated for moving cross country to do the “Tonight Show” when negotiating his departure from NBC, even paying those who didn’t receive severance packages out of his own pocket.

After a short time off the air, he emerged at TBS, where he stayed until his final show last week in a somewhat understated farewell. The pandemic, with its remote broadcasts and empty theaters, probably took some of the sting out of his final few weeks, but then, with the exception of Craig Ferguson, has anyone ever topped Larry Sanders in the final episode department? Fictional or not.

For me, the best of late-night TV combines both smart humor and strong long-form interviewing — and there have only been a few good ones — Carson, Letterman, Ferguson and O’Brien. That’s not to take away from the modern hosts, I just don’t think the late-night format supports that style anymore.

Today’s shows are more like “short attention span” theater. Back in the day, late-night TV was “must-watch” viewing. Today’s content seems to be broken up into digestible segments that can be caught at your leisure the following day on YouTube. Watching a Carson rerun the other night, I marveled that the show clip and actor brought went on for several minutes. Today, you barely see 15 seconds. Conversation? Forget it.

Not to mention political commentary. Sure, politics were always something to joke about — O’Brien used to do hilarious skits with a Bill Clinton character — but it wasn’t “political.” If you wanted news and politics, then you watched Ted Koppel. The success of “The Daily Show” and its ilk changed all that.

In 1993, Conan seemed the first of a new, young generation of hosts. Somehow, 28 years later, he seems like late night’s last holdover. His next act will include a variety show on HBO Max and the continuation of his podcast, both with schedules surely far less demanding and formats arguably better suited to his strengths than modern late-night television. 

And that’s too bad for late night. The genre will never be the same.