Why Conan O’Brien—and Every Other Late-Night Host—Will Never Really Retire

Courtesy of Conaco / Max
Courtesy of Conaco / Max

Every American late-night TV host has striven to follow Johnny Carson’s path to success both in status and in ratings, but not a single one of them has managed to stick the landing quite like Carson.

Carson famously retired from The Tonight Show in 1992 and—despite living another 13 years—never looked back at the TV cameras. Neither Jay Leno nor David Letterman, nor any of their successors or competitors, can say the same.

And the opening sequence of the recently released Conan O’Brien Must Go even mocks its host for it.

Conan O’Brien’s new Max docuseries opens with the voice of German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who introduces the host as “the defiler” of our pristine planet. “He scavenges in distant lands, uninvited, fueled by a bottomless hunger for recognition and the occasional selfie,” Herzog intones. But why? “Once a proud talk show host, he has been driven by a changing ecosystem to a drier and harsher climate: the weekly podcast. Here, without the nourishment of his studio audience, this clown with dull, tiny eyes, the eyes of a crudely painted doll, is forced to feed on that meagerest of morsels, the random call-in fan.”

We shouldn’t be surprised that O’Brien is incapable of stopping. The 2011 documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop proved just that, showing us how he launched his first-ever live comedy tour in response to his falling-out with NBC over The Tonight Show when Leno refused to retire as Carson had. A decade later, when O’Brien announced the end of his Conan run on TBS in 2021, there was talk of a weekly variety series for what was then still called HBO Max. O’Brien also would and has executive-produced several stand-up specials for other comedians on Max under his Team Coco banner.

But the weekly variety series has yet to materialize—and the host recently admitted he doesn’t know how exactly that rumor started. Instead, O’Brien has focused on his podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend, which he launched in 2018, and has now turned in four episodes of Conan O’Brien Must Go, which feels like an unhinged version of his previous travelogue specials, Conan Without Borders. O’Brien also has popped up for memorable small roles in movies such as Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (as Andy Warhol), and Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain.

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And what about the other “kings” of late-night TV?

Leno retired twice from The Tonight Show, the second time for good in 2014, but even then turned immediately from NBC to CNBC to show off his insane custom/classic car collection with celebrity guests in Jay Leno’s Garage from 2015-2022, and more recently has hosted the syndicated game show You Bet Your Life, complete with his Tonight Show sidekick Kevin Eubanks. And, of course, Leno has never stopped performing stand-up, whether on the road or regularly around Los Angeles.

You might have expected David Letterman, out of anyone, to take his emulation of Carson’s career with him into retirement. And while Letterman’s Montana ranch did come calling for a while after he left The Late Show in 2015, he eventually came back out of retirement to interview celebrities for Netflix in 2018 with My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Letterman’s relationship with Netflix has expanded to host stand-up showcases and sit-downs with comedians at the streaming giant’s 2020 festival (That’s My Time), and he’s doing something similar May 6-8 called Gods of Comedy with David Letterman at this year’s Netflix Is A Joke Festival in Los Angeles.

Jon Stewart had enough of The Daily Show in 2015, only to return to the show earlier this year following a few feints (HBO) and detours (Apple TV+), albeit only on Mondays for Comedy Central.

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Craig Ferguson’s fans may feel as though he has retreated into the background, but since stepping down from The Late Late Show at the end of 2014, he has steadily kept hosting other TV shows, whether ’twas Join or Die with Craig Ferguson for the History Channel, or syndicated game shows such as Celebrity Name Game or The Hustler. Ferguson also has released two stand-up specials and a docuseries in the past decade, and last year launched a new podcast, “Joy,” in a deal with iHeartMedia.

Ferguson’s successor on The Late Late Show, James Corden, didn’t waste much time of his own entering the podcast space himself, signing a deal after his 2023 retirement to host “This Life of Mine” for SiriusXM. Similarly, Trevor Noah left The Daily Show at the end of 2022, but hasn’t quit hosting the Grammys, and less than a year after seeing him nightly on Comedy Central, Noah was hosting his own interview podcast series that answered the question, “What Now?”

Conan O’Brien

Conan O’Brien

Courtesy of Conaco/Max

Of course, hosting a weekly interview podcast allows these former TV talk-show hosts to keep doing the part of the gig they may have enjoyed the most while eschewing the rest of the daily grind: the topical monologues, the sketches, and even the suit-wearing.

And it must be said that this trend doesn’t apply equally across the board, especially when you consider the post-show fates of the women or non-white men who briefly soared into the late-night TV space on broadcast or cable. Most of them never got the choice to retire.

Chelsea Handler may have left E! after a seven-year reign presiding over Chelsea Lately, but Handler never wanted to stop talking on TV, which led her more briefly to Netflix, although she wanted The Daily Show gig. So did Hasan Minhaj, the former Daily Show correspondent who went on to host his own critically acclaimed Netflix weekly series, Patriot Act. I’m likewise sure that Samantha Bee and Sarah Silverman would love another crack at hosting a regular TV talker—and at the moment each hosts their own podcast as well. Busy Philipps, meanwhile, is about to launch her latest “late-night” attempt on QVC+.

Perhaps the only late-night TV host to most closely follow Carson’s path out the door? Craig Kilborn, who has followed up his runs on The Daily Show (1996-98) and The Late Late Show (1999-2004) with only the most occasional onscreen cameo.

Where is Kilborn? Who knows? And the mystery of it all actually feels thrilling as a comedy fan.

Nobody’s asking where Conan O’Brien is today.

His podcast remains near the top of the Apple Podcast charts in all categories, and as he demonstrated in his recent appearance on “Hot Ones,” O’Brien approaches every public appearance in search of the funniest angles. What makes his new Max series so appealing is his ability to ad-lib laugh-out-loud lines, whether they’re at the expense of himself or a random fan from Norway.

And as O’Brien explained when he made his triumphant return to The Tonight Show as a guest of Jimmy Fallon’s last week, “As you can attest, this is the best job in the world.” But talking to guests on TV is limited by the format and the network, whereas O’Brien can speak to one of his childhood idols, Carol Burnett, for at least an hour for his podcast.

“This is a nice thing to do at this stage of my life. It’s really fun. So I have a great time with it,” he told Fallon. On the podcast, he said he wanted to be able to talk to anyone, anywhere, not just celebrities, so he began taking calls from listeners. “We started to notice that some of them would say, ‘Hey, if you’re ever in, you know, my weird corner of the world, in Tunisia or whatever, stop by.’ And I thought: Wait a minute. I would love to do a show where I surprise my podcast guests, not tell them ahead of time, and then get involved in their lives.”

That’s so Conan. And that’s why it’s more than fine if he never stops.

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