Photo Credit: NBC
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have exactly one hour to steal every single item in this studio," said Conan O'Brien, kicking off his final monologue Friday night on the last broadcast of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien.
That joke, and the jabs that followed, carried on a sentiment he's expressed all week: He might as well take some retaliatory pot shots while he could against the network that had let him down. But as the final installment unfolded, the tone shifted. Mixed in among references to his "fracas" with NBC were moments of nostalgia and expressions of gratitude.
Famous pals paid tribute, either directly or subtly. On Thursday's show, Pee-wee Herman explained "the whole complicated late night mess" in a way that we could all understand: using stuffed animals and action figures. To represent NBC's lawyer, he used the evil creature from Avatar.
And on Friday's final installment, Fellow NBC star Steve Carell administered O'Brien's exit interview (with a poker face, of course), then shredded his company ID. Neil Young performed his classic song, "Long May You Run," with a chorus that resonated. "Long may you run / although these changes have come." Tom Hanks showed up for the final celebrity interview. And Will Ferrell, in full hippie regalia, led The Tonight Show Band (plus guests Ben Harper, Beck and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons) in a rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," with O'Brien on guitar. Ferrell, naturally, played the cow bell in homage to his famous Saturday Night Live skit.
Of course, O'Brien continued his week-long, running gag: going on a tear with NBC's credit card. "Until this last show ends, we can pretty much do whatever we want, and NBC has to pay for it," he said. "So we've been introducing new comedy bits that aren't so much funny as they are crazy expensive." Then he rolled out a rare fossil skeleton of a giant ground sloth from the Smithsonian, tied a hose to it, and sprayed Beluga caviar on an original Picasso. Total cost, he claimed: $65 million.
When he got serious, though, O'Brien's conflicting emotions were clear. Changing tone, he took the high road, and it was moving to watch. "There's been a lot of speculation in the press of what I legally can and can't say about NBC," he began. "And what I want to say is this. Between my time at SNL…and The Tonight Show, I've worked with NBC for over 20 years. Yes, we have our differences right now. But this company has been my home for most of my adult life. I am enormously proud of the work we've done together, and I want to thank NBC. I really do."
For anyone tempted to feel sorry for him, O'Brien set them straight. "Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show," he said. "And for seven months I got to do it." (If you're still feeling sorry for him, remember the cash payout he's getting from NBC, which is reportedly over $30 million.)
"This massive outpouring of support and passion from so many people has been overwhelming for me," said O'Brien, struggling not to choke up. "The rallies, the signs, all this outrageous creativity on the Internet ... You made a sad situation joyous and inspirational. So to all the people watching, I can never, ever thank you enough for kindness to me."
In closing, he offered fans a little inspiration of his own. "All I ask is one thing: please do not be cynical," he said. "Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you're kind, amazing things will happen."
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