The Judgment of Conan O’Brien

In the final moments of Friday’s The Tonight Show, the now former host, Conan O’Brien, grabbed an ax (that’s slang for guitar) and joined The Max Weinberg 7 to perform “Freebird,” which also included one of the dudes from ZZ Top (the long-bearded guy), Ben Harper, Beck, and Will Ferrell on lead vocals. The spectacle turned an otherwise melancholy moment into something amusing (the segment, along with the rest of O’Brien’s final episode at the helm, can currently be viewed, with limited commercial interruption, at Hulu). The supergroup’s competencies notwithstanding, there were two remarkable things about the performance. First, O’Brien’s ability to shred (that’s slang for play ax); and second, his alternating expressions of joy, sadness, and, more interestingly, relief.

He’s been through a lot (frankly, we all have). O’Brien was having fun jamming, for sure, but by the end it was like watching someone who, after coming to terms with the fact that there’s nothing more the doctors can do for him, happily dies in his sleep while dreaming and, once dead, ascends to heaven. Or something to that effect.

Though the whole The Tonight Show debacle feels epic, it falls short of biblical. Not too far, though; it’s a bit like the story of two mothers who require King Solomon’s intervention for a resolution. The story, as I piece it together from memory, Wikipedia, the Bible, and that episode of Seinfeld wherein Elaine and Kramer fought for custody of a vintage bicycle, goes exactly like this:

There are two mothers (Leno and O’Brien) and two babies, one smothered (The Jay Leno Show), and one living (The Tonight Show). Both mothers claim that the smothered baby is the other’s, and each insists that the living one is hers. King Solomon (NBC) acts as arbiter and, as a ruse, makes a ruling that will reveal who is lying about maternity: the living baby will be split in two (NBC’s proposal to move Leno to 11:35, making O’Brien’s start time midnight or 12:05—no longer Tonight, in other words).

One mother (Leno) is content with having half a baby, whereas the other mother (O’Brien) loves the living baby so much that she dislikes the idea of slicing it in half—leaving them with not one, but two dead babies—and insists that the baby smotherer (the matronly Leno) take the living baby so that it (yeah, babies are its) may remain intact (O’Brien’s statement saying he’d rather step down as the host of The Tonight Show than to alter the institution). King Solomon (NBC) recognizes that the mother willing to part with the baby so that it may live is the baby’s real mother and, so, gives the baby to her (O’Brien).

But this isn’t how it went down. NBC seemed totally content with cutting the baby in two, and when the show’s real mother protested, they gave the baby to the false mother anyway. Leno, who’s proven himself a good yes-man, is game, but O’Brien isn’t. Instead, O’Brien walked away with the knowledge that he had preserved a piece of American history but put it in the hands of a guy that just got done smothering a baby (and four dozen million dollars).

Was this the right thing to do? Who knows. If there’s an upshot to the whole scenario, it’s this: The Jay Leno Show is history.

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