NEW YORK — Conan O'Brien said goodbye to New York and NBC's "Late Night" by taking an axe to his set, enjoying one last booty rub from Will Ferrell and promising fans he wouldn't grow up for an earlier time slot.
O'Brien is heading to Los Angeles, where NBC will fulfill a promise it made five years ago to make him "Tonight" show host. That new gig begins in June. Current "Tonight" host Jay Leno will continue on an NBC talk show, moving up himself to 10 p.m. in the fall. NBC has built a new studio for Jimmy Fallon, who replaces O'Brien beginning March 2.
"We're going on to this next gig and sometimes I read that it's time for Conan to grow up because he's going to 11:30," said the 45-year-old O'Brien on his final show Friday, his 2,725th. "I assure you, that's just not going to happen.
"This is who I am," he said, the roar from his studio audience's standing ovation drowning him out.
Conan, We Bid You Adieu
John Mayer sang a taped message at the beginning of the show, called "L.A.'s gonna eat you alive," a not-so-subtle reference to fears that Hollywood might drain Conan's New York sensibilities and street-cred.
"Look at me, I used to live in NYC. Now I'm as douchey as a man can be," Mayer sang. "LA's gonna eat you alive. Good luck loser."
Some in the TV industry have questioned whether O'Brien's silly, absurdist humor would fly on the "Tonight" show. But the time slot is now a comfortable home to Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central and a popular lineup on The Cartoon Network that appeals to a coveted audience of young men.
O'Brien has taken a sledgehammer and axe to his stage set all week, giving fans souvenirs. On his last show, a construction vehicle was used to tear down a pillar of lights, which was cut up offstage.
Most of his final "Late Night" after 16 years was spent airing highlights and visiting with Andy Richter, O'Brien's former sidekick who left the show in 2000. It was an excuse to air the priceless clip of Richter, "tricked" into believing he was going to a spa, wandering nude onto the "Today" show set and interrupting Matt Lauer.
Ferrell, who's starring a few blocks away from Rockefeller Center in a Broadway production as former President George W. Bush, stopped by in costume to offer a few mangled words of congratulations.
Conan O'Brien Looks Back
"Thanks for 16 years of humantastical wonderment," Ferrel said, and later, "I love you Cone-bone."
Next he stripped off his suit to reveal another character, a leprechaun stripper, and rubbed up against O'Brien's leg.
The White Stripes were his final musical guest, with the duo strumming guitars on "I Can Tell We're Going to Be Friends."
Actor Abe Vigoda made a cameo, released from a cage by O'Brien, with mock tears streaming down his face.
There were plenty of doubts O'Brien would even reach triple figures following his rocky start, as an unknown comedy writer chosen to replace David Letterman. He paid an effusive tribute to Letterman, who will soon be his direct competitor.
For all the silliness of the skits replayed for his finale — visiting Finland and Ireland, mocking people who staged a reenactment of an 1864 baseball game — O'Brien revealed himself as a sentimentalist at the end.
O'Brien devoted the final part of his show to thank his wife, NBC producers, each member of the Max Weinberg 7, Jay Leno and others. But his voice broke as he thanked veteran TV producer Lorne Michaels, who gave him the job.
"Lorne Michaels single-handedly made my career in television," he said. "I don't know what I did. I think I must have saved his life at one time. He certainly saved mine."
He said he's still not sure what he did to deserve the opportunity.
"There are people that have hosted these kinds of shows who are better than I am," he said. "Nobody has ever enjoyed it more than I do. It's an incredible, amazing honor to do this show for you people."