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Poignant and bittersweet for Conan O'Brien's "Tonight Show"

By Ryan Broderick, Managing Editor

The last episode of Conan O'Brien's "The Tonight Show" aired tonight and for the most part is was a love letter to fans. O'Brien came into the "Tonight Show" studio amidst thunderous applause and cheers and quickly established that tonight would be O'Brien's "Tonight Show" as usual.

And it was, in fact, more or less the standard Conan O'Brien fare, jabs at NBC dripping with just a smidge of venom, outlandish gags, celebrity cameos, and just a big, quirky, weird send-off. The comedic highlight of the episode was definitely Steve Carrell's cameo as an NBC representative asking Conan about how satisfied he was with NBC. There was a melancholy in the air, but it wasn't overwhelming.

In fact, the closest thing the final episode of "The Tonight Show" could be compared to would be any episode from "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" in its prime. The careless abandon, the offbeat  "I'm proud to be weird" ‘tude of Andy and Conan's banter. If you had closed your eyes you would've thought it was 2005 all over again.

Which begs me to ask the question that really lies at the center of this entire cluster f—k of a situation. Over the last two weeks O'Brien's ratings skyrocketed, protesters called for sides to be taken and pointed to the ratings as proof of the underdog host's support.

But is that really why so many people tuned in? Or was it because for the first time in the seven months that Conan O'Brien and Andy Richter helmed "The Tonight Show" they really just did whatever they wanted? I mean it's clear that their element is not in pleasing an audience as much as it is laughing at themselves along with the crowd. It was like they finally had their scrappy mojo back.

But it was the show's last 20 minutes that put all of it in perspective and was an strikingly candid moment for the host.

"Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it's my least favorite quality. It doesn't lead anywhere," Conan O'Brien said into the camera with tears in his eyes, more than a little choked up. "Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they wanted. But if you work really hard, and you're kind, amazing things will happen."

It was a beautiful moment because it proved just how grateful O'Brien was, but at the same time it was almost crushing because there, laid out in front of America, was NBC's attitude to the younger generations. There might as well have been subtitles at the bottom of the screen reading "NBC does not care about anyone under 30 year's old, we will crush you like we did this nice man."

Leslie Savan from "The Nation" described O'Brien's crushing defeat at the hands of NBC as a perfect allegory for the financial crisis. Savan compares NBC's Chief Jeff Zucker to a head of a company like AIG paying O'Brien to just go away.

But really, what Conan O'Brien's cancellation seemed the most like was martyrdom. And it's crazy to say that this was planned, and of course it wasn't, but I can't imagine that every quirky, offbeat comedian in the country at the sight of O'Brien's tears didn't want to just give up. Conan O'Brien over the last couple months was proof that maybe, just maybe, mainstream America was ready for something interesting and out of the usual for their "Tonight Show".

Instead, it just turned into another "Arrested Development" all over again.


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