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O'Brien was largely not expected to last much longer than a week, and indeed was on the verge of cancellation for years, with only the fact that there was nothing to replace him with the only saving factor. (The critical consensus, O'Brien included, is that the show was terrible for its first three years.) However, O'Brien grew into the role and ended up hosting for nearly sixteen years. NBC made darn sure not to lose another Late Night host to a rival network and plans were drawn up as early as 2004 for him to take over The Tonight Show. After O'Brien did inherit The Tonight Show in 2009, Late Night went to former SNL cast member Jimmy Fallon (who if he's smart already has alternate names for all his characters and routines memorized or on undated handwritten papers kept strictly in his home).
In 2010, The Tonight Show and The Jay Leno Show touched off what the media (and many viewers) termed the 'Late-Night War'; basically, Conan O'Brien made a lateral move to host The Tonight Show, and Leno moved up to an earlier timeslot to helm the Jay Leno Show.
After the switch, Leno and O'Brien's ratings began a serious decline; NBC's response was to shorten The Jay Leno Show to thirty minutes and move it from its 10:00 timeslot to 11:35, and move Tonight from 11:35 to a new 12:05 timeslot.
The new schedule didn't sit well with O'Brien, who refused to participate in what he called the wholesale destruction of The Tonight Show, which would also bump other programs back by thirty minutes (and possibly remove one from the late-night roster altogether). NBC reportedly gave him the option to accept the timeslot or leave the network; faced with the choice-that-was-not, O'Brien negotiated with NBC for a forty-five million dollar 'walk away' deal, and left NBC entirely, later signing with TBS.
Unlike many late night hosts during the conflict, Jimmy Fallon largely resisted jumping into the fray, as he considers both Leno and O'Brien good friends.
Tropes for the show in general include:
- Long Runner: It's been running continuously since 1982.
- Non-Indicative Name: Technically, it airs in the early morning.
- Something Completely Different: A staple of both the Letterman and O'Brien eras.
- Talk Show
- The Talk Show With Host Name
Tropes from the David Letterman era include:
- Ashes to Crashes: Paul Rudd described his surreal experiences with his father's ashes in Ireland. Yes, he got "Lebowski'ed".
Tropes from the Conan O'Brien era include:
- Author Filibuster: Pierre Bernard and his Recliner of Rage segments, where he would rant on length at whatever was bothering him.
- The Bus Came Back: David Letterman appeared as a guest a few times, complementing Conan on being able to sucessfully put his own spin on the Late Night set and formular.
- The Elevator From Ipanema: One skit involved two contestants racing turtles representing the New York Giants and New England Patriots to determine who would win the 2008 Super Bowl. At one point, the contestants and turtles entered an elevator and guess what song was playing inside?
Conan: (laughs) That is so stupid, I'm sorry.
- Fauxtastic Voyage: In a recurring sketch, Conan interviews a cast member who claims to be reporting from a distant location while actually standing in front of a projected background. When Conan expresses skepticism that the correspondent is actually at the distant location, the correspondent insists he really is there and purports to prove it by walking to another location (represented by another projected background). The sketch typically ends with Conan walking to where the correspondent is standing (a few feet away on the stage) to hit him with a chair.
- Good Angel, Bad Angel: The recurring sketch "Moral Dilemma", where Conan would be faced with a small one -- e.g. finding a wallet full of cash and deciding whether or not to keep it or return it to its rightful owner. Suddenly, a little devil urging him to do the wrong choice would appearing on one shoulder. On the other shoulder, instead of an angel, it would be something like a bear or an astronaut, giving advice pertaining to that character.
- Hypocritical Humor: In one of the Clutch Cargo segments, Conan interviewed Arnold Schwarzenegger on the subject of immigration. Arnold stated:
Arnold: WE HAVE TO KEEP OUT THE FOREIGNERS! Yah! You do, because... because... they can't speak de Englishes! And Conan, their diction, it can only be described... as fleigengrapenscheizen!
- I Comma Noun: "I, Rowboat", a parody of the then-recently-released I, Robot movie.
- Impersonation Paradox: Robert Smigel's impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Synchro-Vox segment got more and more exaggerated over time to the point where Arnold shouted every line.
- Incredibly Lame Pun: This example, which was so bad that the audience booed him.
Conan: This week, airport security in England recently detained James Hetfield, the lead singer for Metallica. Apparently, he kept setting off the heavy metal detector.
- Lame Comeback: A recurring gag when Conan interviews Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Synchro-Vox segment. Example:
Arnold: These are people [immigrants] who risk life and limb, swim across rivers, crawl through the hand-dug tunnels, and give up everything they had, just so that their children might one day see my all-time smash holiday classic, Jingle All the Way!! (audience laughs) Don't you understand, Conan? It's the American dream!
Conan: That is not...
Arnold: Jingle All the Way!
Conan: That is not the American dream.
Arnold: You're not the American dream!
Conan: Oh, good one. Yeah.
- No Indoor Voice: Joel Godard. Dear God. "PLUS MAX WEINBERG and the MAX WEINBERG SEVEN!!! Now, here's your host, CO-nan O-BRIIIIIIIIYUUUUUHN!!!!!!!!!"
- Once Per Episode: At the top of the show, Conan scrunched his legs together and took a jump forward, which prompted a trumpet sting. Conan would then stand up and point to the band leader, who would wrap up the opening theme. Episodes frequently had Conan performing "the string dance" as well.
- Operator From India: One sketch had Andy Blitz attempting to fix his computer with the help of an Indian telephone IT technician… And traveling to India with his computer (in Real Life!) to pester her.
- Patchwork Kids: The recurring sketch "If They Mated", in which images of a celebrity couple get combined into Nightmare Fuel. (Often by the end of a segment, they would subvert this by putting ridiculous theoretical couples together and getting silly non-patchwork results -- Conan himself plus Scooby Doo's Daphne, whom he claimed he had a crush on as a kid, resulted in SpongeBob SquarePants.)
- Psychic Nosebleed: Parodied in one episode, where a psychic guest loses copious amounts of blood while using telepathy. The psychic's spoon is indeed nudged, although he is now wearing a wet red shirt for it.
- Public Service Announcement: Parodied, of course. For example, during 2008, Conan and his band created some mock "Green Your Routine" ads, which NBC was running at the time.
Joel Godard: One simple way to reduce energy consumption is by turning off all the lights in your house. It's as easy as flipping a switch, or not paying your electric bill for seven months because you kept spending your money on barbiturates.
- Screen Shake: In a monologue during the Writer's Strike, Conan wanted to re-enact Cloverfield. What followed was Conan running around the stage while the camera shook violently.
- Shoot the Money:
- They had used a giant whale costume with functioning blowhole for one sketch. After that, Conan announced that they would feature the costume in as many sketches as possible in order to justify the price of several thousand dollars, and broke the per-scene cost down after each sketch. This was done on at least 8 separate episodes.
- Inverted on his last couple of weeks on NBC, where he presented a series of one-off sketches supposedly constructed to be as expensive as possible to the network such as "Purchased fossil of a ground sloth from the Smithsonian spraying an original Picasso with beluga caviar." Generally, these sketches featured obvious fakes or donated loaners.
- Sound Effect Bleep: On the episode where the duck Quackers took a dump on the floor and then ate it, Conan remarked, "There's a (bleep) eating duck over here." and immediately apologized: "I don't swear often, but that's what he did!"
- Trash the Set: Conan did this on air immediately before leaving the show.
- Widget Series
- You Get What You Pay For: Conan occasionally says something to the effect of, "This show is free, what do you want?" if the audience boos one of his jokes.
Tropes from the Jimmy Fallon era include:
- Audience Participation: One of the few American late night shows that use this. Audience members often participate in quirky games between the monologue and when the guests come out.
- Affectionate Parody: Of everything from Lost to Jersey Shore. The elaborate taped parodies of popular TV shows, all set within the Late Night universe, have become a hallmark of Fallon's run on the show.
- Crosscast Role: The "Real Wives of Late Night" have the cast of the show playing their wives. Lampshaded when the Indianapolis Colts' wives (the players also in drag) come over for a party and Higgins wife offhandedly mentions they look like dudes.
- ~Oh, The Humanity!~: Directly parodied with the "Who Cares Hindenburg". After bringing up some useless news stories, usually celebrity gossip, Fallon declares that all those stories are going into the "Who Cares Hindenburg". Then we see Stock Footage of the Hindenburg exploding while an announcer sarcastically mourns the loss of all those stories, ending with "Oh, the humanity! WHO CARES?!"
- Precious Puppies: From "If Puppies Could Vote" (Gary Frick, you stop it!) to their 2011 Emmy nomination reel, which featured a puppy dressed up as each member of the writing staff, this incarnation certainly loves a puppy gag.
- Homemade Sweater From Hell: During the twelve days before the show takes its Christmas break, Fallon gives them away to members of their audience.
- Muppet Cameo: There have been quite a few Sesame Street characters coming to visit.
- Production Posse: Familiar faces during filmed pieces include staff writers A.D. Miles, Morgan Murphy, and Bashir Salahuddin, as well as Sidekick Steve Higgins, and his niece, SNL actress Abby Elliott.
- Shaggy Dog Story: The "Head Swap" segment.
- Spit Take: There's a game centered around it on the show.
- Undesirable Prize: Exaggerated in the "Wheel of Carpet Samples" game. The "losers" get $300 Apple gift cards. The "winner" gets a carpet sample.
- What Could Possibly Go Wrong?: Jimmy Fallon used this in a joke while hosting the 2010 Primetime Emmys:
- Zonk: Some of the contestant games involve these. In "Doll Posin'", the losers get a doll-sized "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" T-Shirt. In the Spit Take game, the losers get moist towelettes.