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Conan O'Brien Pushes Silliness Aside As He Wraps Up His Late Night Show

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Last Thursday, Conan O'Brien ended his 11-year run as the host of the TBS talk show "Conan." It's the third time he's said goodbye as a late night host after 16 years on NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and a brief, tumultuous seven months on NBC's "The Tonight Show," both following and proceeding Jay Leno. Conan O'Brien has more TV ahead of him, starting with an upcoming weekly variety series on HBO Max. But our TV critic David Bianculli says this is a proper time to make note of O'Brien's place in late-night TV history.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I was there back in 1993 at the press conference introducing Conan O'Brien as the new host of NBC's late night series, replacing David Letterman. Conan was a writer-producer on "The Simpsons" and a former writer on "Saturday Night Live," but was a mystery to virtually all the TV reporters and critics in attendance. One of us described him in a question as a relative unknown, and O'Brien interrupted him, pretending to be deeply offended. Relatively unknown, Conan shouted back - sir, I'm completely unknown. I wrote then that I thought Conan O'Brien would do just fine - and he has.

He got into the late-night TV game when he was 30 and has been at it for 28 years now. Johnny Carson stepped down from "The Tonight Show" after 30 years, so that's an impressive stretch. And Conan isn't pulling up stakes, just shifting gears. His next show is scheduled to be a weekly variety series for HBO Max, which will allow for more time for advanced planning and post-production. That's encouraging because Conan's best TV bits over the years have been his remote reports - from Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog with puppeteer Robert Smigel to his brilliant, more recent Conan Without Borders visits to other countries.

The original host of "The Tonight Show," Steve Allen, quit his program to do a weekly variety show, too. So there's historical precedent here. And Conan O'Brien knows and cares a lot about TV history. It was his reverence for "The Tonight Show" that drove him to give it up after less than a year, rather than watch NBC diminish the show by moving it and him to a later time slot. Last week's final episode of Conan was loaded with its own nods to history. It began with a cold open courtesy of the host's previous employer, "The Simpsons," with a cartoon Conan being interviewed by Homer Simpson. Also on that last show, Jack Black serenaded the host the same way Bette Midler had sung goodbye to Johnny Carson. And Will Ferrell, a friend from Conan's days on "SNL," showed up via Zoom this time to mark Conan's last talk show appearance again.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")

CONAN O'BRIEN: Thank you, Will. You've always been such an amazing friend to my show.

WILL FERRELL: Yes, about that.

(LAUGHTER)

FERRELL: You know, I was there for your final "Late Night" show and your last "Tonight Show" episode and now this one.

O'BRIEN: Yeah, that's true. It's kind of become a tradition.

FERRELL: I'll tell you what it is. It's [expletive] exhausting.

(LAUGHTER)

FERRELL: OK? I mean, I love you Conan, but, I mean, if you don't mind, could I just pre-tape a few goodbyes and you could just use them whenever, you know, your next several shows flame out?

BIANCULLI: And that was no idle threat. Ferrell did just that, providing advanced goodbyes for Conan's next project.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")

FERRELL: Hey, Conan, congratulations on an outstanding run on your HBO Max show.

(LAUGHTER)

FERRELL: So six episodes isn't a lot, but you packed enough entertainment in them for eight episodes.

BIANCULLI: And for some imagined future ones, which he described to the host's obvious delight.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")

FERRELL: Hey, Conan. I'm truly going to miss your Delta in-flight talk show "Wheels Up With Conan O'Brien" (ph), available on select flights from Atlanta to Tampa.

O'BRIEN: That's great. Well, thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: But just as with Conan's previous TV farewells, as with the final on-air talk show goodbyes by Carson and Letterman, Conan O'Brien ended things on a serious note, pushing all irony and silliness aside.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")

O'BRIEN: Try and do what you love with people you love. And if you can manage that, it's the definition of heaven on earth - I swear to God, it really is. So good night. Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

BIANCULLI: It was a nice way to go out. Clearly, Conan has followed his own advice and he's already planning on following it some more with a show I predict will be his career best. He's acquired both the skills and the clout to do precisely what he wants. Getting more time to write and shape his comedy will serve him well. And at this point, he's got an audience - and I'm among them - eager to watch and be entertained by what comes next. In complete contrast to when he began, O'Brien, after almost 30 years on television, is not a complete unknown, just the opposite.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey.

On tomorrow's show, rethinking one of the world's most transformative inventions, the flush toilet. Writer Chelsea Wald says the tools that Americans rely on to remove and process our bodily wastes aren't available to billions of people across the globe and scientists are working on new solutions. Her book is "Pipe Dreams." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering help from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Rebecca Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.