Conan O’Brien Delights in His Tonight Show Return, Praises Fallon

If you love late-night TV and you miss Conan O’Brien (as you should), you have to scarf up every opportunity that comes along; so last night’s guest shot with Jimmy Fallon was–to underscore the NBC-themed nostalgia of it all–Must See TV.

The studio audience certainly knew it. They knew this was Conan returning to NBC, and returning to The Tonight Show for the first time since he departed the show in 2010 on terms so bad that he used his last week on the air trying to (symbolically) drain NBC’s budget by doing things like (fictionally) having a rare fossil skeleton of a ground sloth spray Beluga caviar on an original Picasso.

The sustained standing ovation proved the audience was into the momentousness of the occasion. So was Fallon, who called Conan “larger than life.”

And so was Conan, who replied with mock arrogance: “The word’s iconic.”

No mock needed. In whatever passes for a Pantheon of late-night hosts, Conan O’Brien punched his membership card many times over during his wildly creative 16 years hosting Late Night on NBC and his rudely interrupted seven months on Tonight.

Probably wisely, his appearance last night was not a non-stop call back to the NBC days, and the less-than-felicitous circumstances of Conan’s exit. For one thing, the entire hierarchy of NBC responsible for Conan’s separation papers is long gone. For another, it’s not Jimmy’s style to take deep dives into his guests’ psyches.

He was interested in having fun–and Conan certainly obliged. So much so that he spent a good portion of his first of two panel segments trying to catch his breath after jumping from his chair to act out an anecdote. Like how he used to try to cut down on looming over guests from his great height (6’4) by greeting them in a Groucho-like crouch.

But emotion is never completely below the surface with O’Brien. He admitted that memories “came flooding back” when he returned to the sixth floor at 30 Rock where Fallon’s current Tonight studio and Conan’s old Late Night studio sit on opposite sides of the hall.

O’Brien had not seen that hallway or that studio since his finale on Late Night which ended with the staff (and others) breaking up the set and appropriating pieces of it.

He advised Fallon that one day he too will leave his studio behind, and will likely have mixed feelings about someone else was occupying it.

“I walked in and I said, who is in my old studio? And they said Kelly Clarkson,” Conan said. After professing his love for Kelly Clarkson, Conan said, “But still I felt: “IT’S NOT RIGHT!” His faux rage continued. “Blasphemy! They should have burned it to the ground! Then Kelly came out to say Hi and I said: ‘Don’t talk to me! You make me sick!”

Funny in the totally familiar Conan fashion: big, broad, also just a tiny bit pointed.

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Over two segments he did an exemplary job of being a guest in late night: engaging conversation, with a lot of anecdotes.

In fact, a number of good ones were cut for time from the show as it aired (although they’re still included in the clips the show uploaded to YouTube) . One was about how guests from NBC’s local news show Live at Five used to knock directly on his dressing room door begging to be booked. Another involved the now-legendary Henson pipes that were once hidden away in the closet of his former bandleader Max Weinberg’s dressing room.

A very funny story had nothing to do with celebrities or the old show, but everything to do with Conan being Conan. He related an airport encounter with a devoted fan, and feeling so grateful for the fan’s kind words that he pushed him into joining him in a selfie. Only to run into surprising reluctance.

President Obama (off air) and Prince (on) had cameos in other stories.

Of course O’Brien had memories about the current Tonight host. Jimmy mentioned that he made his first guest appearance in late night with Conan, and made several efforts to thank him for that. But Conan wanted to tell the story of meeting Fallon’s parents after the show who were desperate to know how their son did.

“This kid is going all the way!” Conan recalled saying, but sabotaged that quickly by adding “I say that to everybody.”

In this case, his prediction wound up being accurate. Jimmy Fallon is just the sixth host of Tonight (Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Carson, Jay Leno, Conan) and was the third host of “Late Night” (David Letterman, Conan, Fallon). He and Conan are the only two hosts to have sat in both chairs.

I have to confess to being mildly surprised they didn’t mention that connection at some point.

But Conan had his very funny podcast to talk about, and of course, his upcoming (April 18) HBO series, Conan Must Go, about his travels to far-flung cities where fans of the podcast live, whom Conan surprises in bits that look highly reminiscent of Conan’s late-night remotes.

He did save time for a personal comment directed at his host last night. Conan noted that he’d had the honor of meeting every Tonight host going back to Steve Allen, who started it all in 1954. He did not list the others by name, so Jay Leno’s name never passed anyone’s lips during the conversation.

“I think what you’ve done with the show is beautiful, Conan said to Fallon. “You made it your own. You’ve done so much great quality work. And I couldn’t be happier for you.”

That was so nice that Conan might even be asked back before another 14 years have passed.

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