You may be wondering by now whether NBC has done anything right in late-night TV. The last week of Conan O'Brien's all-too-brief tenure established that -- yeah, absolutely: It has.
Or at least did. Appointing O'Brien as host of "The Tonight Show" -- only the fifth to hold the most prestigious job in television, and maybe even popular culture -- was absolutely the right decision.
It was right five years ago, and right up until the very last seconds, with O'Brien jamming with some very serious musicians and Will Ferrell to boot. It was right for the simplest and most obvious of reasons -- O'Brien is, was and always will be a genial, talented, funny, facile, accessible TV personality who effortlessly breached the fourth wall between himself and the audience, both in the studio and at home. He added that all-important creative dimension -- inspirational comedy bits that were sharp enough to have real bite, but never mean-spirited or malicious.
Some people, seriously, have been appalled that he spent so much money on those "crazy expensive" stunts that NBC was forced to pay for this last week. Imagine! Trotting out Mine the Bird (and having it watch a pirated NFL game!). Imagine their horror at last night's bit -- a skeleton of a giant sloth spraying caviar onto a Picasso.
Total cost to NBC? $65 million.
Conan actually was compelled to say -- it's not real people.
He ended his all-too-brief run with an urgent and heartfelt appeal to fans, and it was perfect Conan. In those few minutes, you saw the kid from Boston who dreamed big, and actually scored the best job in television, held on to it for a few months -- almost like he had won some sort of contest -- and was now moving on, without any regrets, bitterness or recrimination.
"Every comedian dreams of hosting 'The Tonight Show' and, for seven months, I got to. I did it my way, with people I love, and I do not regret a second. I've had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-Eleven parking lot, we'll find a way to make it fun."
Now I can hear some readers saying: Hold on! NBC offered the guy 12:05; all he had to do was agree to move it up a lousy half-hour and all this nonsense goes away.
But on closer inspection, the offer in reality was a time bomb -- set to go off the minute Jay Leno's 11:35 show got the number, or close to the number, it got for his old "Tonight." Conan's 12:05 would not have been beneficiary of that number because of a basic law in television -- at a tick past midnight, millions of people head to bed. So-called "homes using television," or HUTs, drop off the cliff.
Affiliates would have agitated for a full hour of Leno and before long, the new offer to Conan would be this -- "move your show to 12:35." Any way you look at it, Jay woulda been right back where he started from, and so would Conan.
Fact is, Conan needed time to build an audience base at 11:35, and I believe in time he would have. It might have taken a few years. And as you recall, it took a couple for Jay, too. Late-night hosts are not born fully formed; it's such an intimate relationship with the audience that years are needed to build a comfort level and groom that fan base. There’s little doubt, too, that O'Brien would have evolved, and changed, and morphed -- not into a Carson, but an older and more seasoned version of himself.
It woulda been fun to watch, and it was fun to watch these past seven months. Conan did mount a very good "Tonight" - good from the first week to the last.
Now, it's over. Nothing sad about that because the next chapter, wherever that will unfold, should be even better.
Conan O'Brien appears on the final episode of "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien." (Getty Images Photo / Jan. 22, 2010)