Like 7 million other people (literally), I tuned in to watch Conan’s final episode of The Tonight Show last night. I even re-watched it this morning on Hulu because it was that good. If you don’t have the time to watch the full thing, at least watch this clip of his closing speech to fans.
Conan is seriously a class act. He’s been funnier than ever these last couple of weeks and leaving on such a high note is a high road that not too many other people would take. It felt more like a retirement speech than anything else and reminded me of Johnny Carson’s last show (which, yes, I watched when it originally aired).
This whole botched debacle is going to end up with a big list of winners and a short list of losers.
WINNER: Jimmy Kimmel. Seriously, after doing a hilarious impersonation of Jay Leno, he then goes on The Jay Leno Show and makes an absolute mockery of the host, delivering some scathing zingers that have so far gained nearly a million views on YouTube. He then followed up with a mock Ken Burns documentary, The Late Night War, that was side-splitting. It doesn’t look like he’s going to stop that too soon either. Those kinds of bits have no doubt attracted viewers who a few weeks ago would have said “Jimmy who?”
WINNER: David Letterman. Letterman enjoyed some huge ratings advantages over The Tonight Show thanks to the weak lead-in from Leno, a position he hasn’t enjoyed for well over a decade. He’s also gotten some good digs in at Jay and kicked some of the old Late Night War back into action.
WINNER: Conan O’Brien. Yes, I know. He lost The Tonight Show and, unlike Jay, can’t go back to his old slot, and is off the air until at least September, all after having relocated to LA from New York less than a year prior. He did, however, score a sweet severance package (reportedly a solid $33M) as well as $12M in severance for his staff. (Word on the street is that he dropped some of his own money in to push that severance up for everyone.) So, basically, he and his staff are getting a 7-month paid vacation. Conan also picked up immense popularity, dominating Twitter with #teamconan and #imwithcoco posts with the “I’m With COCO” Facebook page now over 678K fans and growing. (For comparison, Stephen Colbert’s Facebook page for his show has under 437K fans.) Conan has a lot of support and respect that he gets to cash in and a lot of money with which to bankroll it.
LOSER: Jay Leno. The classy thing to do would have been to insist that NBC can him to keep his arrangement with Conan to take over Tonight. As Kimmel said, you’ve got $800M dollars, you can afford to bow out. He’s taken most of the flak for this mess from Letterman, Kimmel, Ferguson, and pretty much the entire Internet while clinging to his “the network made me do it, I’m a victim too” narrative. I expect Leno’s ratings to tank upon his return from that ill will.
LOSERS: Jimmy Fallon and Carson Daly. If Leno comes back and rating still suck, you can guess who’s going to end up with an even worse late-night lead-in audience. The only saving grace for both of these guys is that Conan refused the lame-brain stunt to put Leno before The Tonight Show, pushing Fallon and Daly into a ratings black hole.
WINNER: Craig Ferguson. If Letterman dominates the ratings, Ferguson may steal the title back from Fallon for his time slot. He hasn’t made a lot of commentary on the Leno/Conan spat, but he doesn’t need to.
WINNER: TV viewers. This whole thing has provided some great material for weeks and I’ve personally been enjoying the crap out of it. I’m also excited to see where Conan goes because whatever it is, you can be sure he’ll be able to call the shots on where it gets taped and what he can do. It’s a shame that he probably won’t be able to take along some of his characters (Triumph bits always cracked me up), but he’s creative enough to come up with some new stuff. Twitter Tracker and Conando were his A game, proving there’s still a well of originality left to be tapped.