Paul Hur, 37, left, of Fullerton shows his support for late-night talk-show… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
After two weeks of frantic backroom maneuvers and withering on-air broadsides, NBC's struggle with Conan O'Brien came to a close Friday evening. The comic signed off after less than eight months as host of "The Tonight Show," leaving a once-venerable late-night franchise hobbled by corporate missteps and changing audience dynamics.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have exactly one hour to steal every single item in this studio," O'Brien joked to his audience at the start of the show.
He added: "We've had a lot of fun being here these last seven months, but like everything in life, the fun has to come to an end a decade too early."
The studio audience greeted O'Brien with a one-minute standing ovation, accompanied by chants of "Conan! Conan! Conan!"
When a curtain failed to close after one comedy bit, O'Brien joked: "We didn't rehearse today because we don't care. We've all been drinking."
Guests included Tom Hanks, Neil Young and Steve Carell. Will Ferrell helped O'Brien, an amateur guitarist, sign off the program with a version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's hit "Free Bird."
Neither NBC nor O'Brien's producers would permit reporters to attend the taping of the final show, which began around 5 p.m. at a studio in Universal City. The network also declined to make a live feed of the program available for viewing.
Some of O'Brien's outspoken fans -- who have relished the comic's attacks on his employer in recent days -- lined up in heavy rain early Friday morning at the studio to try to score tickets to the final broadcast. Many young fans who were small children when O'Brien burst to fame as host of NBC's "Late Night" in 1993 acted out favorite bits from the show, including the comic's signature "string dance."
A last-minute splurge on travel tickets brought 27-year-old Chris Knudsen all the way from Austin, Texas, on Thursday night. He then took a 2 1/2 -hour bus trip with a friend from her home in La Mirada to Universal City.
"It was a very spontaneous trip," Knudsen acknowledged. "But it's Conan. I had to do it. I've been watching him since his first season on 'Late Night.' It was a family tradition -- starting with Letterman -- to stay up late to watch the show. When Conan took over, he stuck with me and I stuck with him."
Stephanie Martinez, 21, a college student from Downey, joined many of her peers in favorably comparing her comedy hero with Jay Leno, who was O'Brien's predecessor on "Tonight" and will be his successor as well.
Leno is "a lower level of comedy," said Martinez, who said she attended Thursday's O'Brien taping. "Conan connects with his audience. He goes out of his way to let us know we're on the same level. I connected with him. He's so much like me. . . . I would totally do the string dance."
The chain of events that led to O'Brien's departure began Jan. 7, with reports that suggested NBC was considering ending Leno's low-rated 10 p.m. talk show -- which had begun in September to much fanfare -- and returning him to late night. The move came after pressure from local stations, which also worried that O'Brien's "Tonight" was struggling in the ratings opposite CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman."
The situation escalated the next week when O'Brien issued a statement that he would not accept the network's proposal that his program begin at 12:05 a.m., after Leno's. The standoff transfixed the entertainment industry as both sides worked to hammer out a deal.
O'Brien confirmed on his Thursday show that he had reached an agreement to exit the network. He will reportedly receive nearly $33 million to walk away, with an additional $12 million going to staff members, many of whom moved from New York to Los Angeles when O'Brien took over "Tonight" in June.
O'Brien was the fifth host of "Tonight," which premiered in 1954, after Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Leno. He had by far the shortest tenure; Carson, the host for 30 years, had the longest.
Under the deal, O'Brien will not be able to return to television or do interviews until Sept. 1. Leno will return as "Tonight" host March 1, after NBC finishes telecasting the Winter Olympics.
O'Brien has spent much of his recent telecasts taking potshots at his employer. During one monologue, he noted that NBC reportedly had threatened to keep him off the air for years after he left "Tonight."
"If NBC doesn't want people to see me," he joked, "just leave me on NBC."
But on Friday's show, he paid heartfelt tribute to his longtime employer with a serious aside, at one point even choking up as he expressed gratitude for his years at the network and the opportunity to host "The Tonight Show."
"I am enormously proud of the work we have done together, and I want to thank NBC for making it all possible," he said.