Everything there is to say has undoubtedly been said about the Conan/Leno debacle. Conan’s last night behind The Tonight Show desk was funny, sweet, and quite joyful, all things considered. The montage of highlights, complete with Cheap Trick’s “Surrender”, was a clever, poignant call back to how Conan began his all too brief tenure. Like the song says, he might be giving up his time on NBC, but he’s not giving himself away in the name of fickle, fearful executives. Steve Carell, almost in Michael Scott mode, was a smart choice to conduct the exit interview. Tom Hanks recalled where it all started for Conan as a writer on SNL. Neil Young made another inspired musical contribution with “Long May You Run” (while it won’t be with the Peacock, let’s hope that prophecy comes to pass). Finally there was Will Ferrell in Lynyrd Skynyrd mode with a cover of “Free Bird.” Conan himself joined in on the guitar, and the energy from the studio infiltrated my increasingly cluttered apartment. Before picking up the ax, Conan delivered a completely sincere speech about his gratitude for the chances NBC had taken on him (not the easiest thing to do under the circumstances). He applauded his fans and closed with his personal philosophy that cynicism leads nowhere, that perseverance and decency are ultimately rewarded.
In short, Conan went out with class. Jay Leno and Jeff Zucker do not know the meaning of the word. I can’t imagine a scenario where no one watches Jay come March 1 and Conan somehow returns to The Tonight Show. Another network is likely to scoop up Conan and Co., but having to wait until September equals lost momentum. Still, Leno can no longer hide behind his supposed good guy persona, and Conan, well on the road to cult hero status, will emerge the victor. Now that might not equal massive ratings, which is all NBC can comprehend. But there’s a little thing called legacy that transcends time and numbers. Conan is one for kindness and optimism, but he’s also one for principles. Without those, a man or woman stands for very little. Wherever Conan lands, I’ll be watching. And as for Leno? My mother could be his first guest. I’m never watching again. On principle.