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The Art of the Comedic Farewell

Conan O’Brien bid farewell to the The Tonight Show on Friday night, ending an acrimonious feud with NBC that nonetheless provided vast comic fodder and a ratings surge in his final weeks. Eschewing any final jabs at NBC, Conan delivered an impassioned speech denouncing cynicism and promising, “If you work really hard and you’re kind, I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.” Neil Young performed a somber “Long May You Run,” but it was a roaring version of Southern epic “Freebird” that was the most joyful, with Conan showcasing his guitar-shredding skills and a shaggy Will Ferrell gracing the world with even more cowbell.

The closing number was just another memorable performance in a long line of notable farewells. Which late-night goodbyes are your favorites? We’ll refresh you with a few after the jump.

The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
Carson’s last show bears a striking similarity to Conan’s, with an extended montage and Doc Severinsen asking Carson to “walk out through the draperies in my living room” (Tom Hanks likewise asked Conan to come and do the show at his house every night). However, it’s Carson’s penultimate Tonight Show that featured Bette Midler dueting with Carson at his desk, singing a doleful rendition of “One More For My Baby (And One More For The Road),” that most people remember. Carson was near tears; only time will tell if “Freebird” can reach such iconic status.

Phil Hartman – Saturday Night Live
In hard-to-find footage, the comic powerhouse Phil Hartman is supported by the Saturday Night Live Family singers, as they sing an altered version of “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music. Cast members perform as their recurring characters, until only Chris Farley is left as motivational speaker Matt Foley. Farley falls asleep onstage, nuzzled tightly into Hartman’s shoulder. The spotlight tightens around the two, Hartman’s voice cracking with emotion as he sings his final goodbyes, the camera eventually fading away into the distance.

Garry Shandling – The Larry Sanders Show
An obnoxious, absorbed parody of a late-night host collides with an equally over-the-top performer in the final episode of The Larry Sanders Show. The critically-acclaimed series openly mocked the heavy-handed conventions of late-night goodbyes, preferring satire over gravitas. Pomposity is punctured by a positively manic Jim Carrey delivering a diva, tour-de-force performance of the musical roof-raiser “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” Carrey envelops the studio, delivering the song with a Broadway bombast and comic panache, hints of exaggerated emotion sneaking through.

Amy Poehler – Saturday Night Live
Another memorable SNL goodbye comes courtesy of Amy Poehler, who signed off from the Weekend Update desk for the final time to take maternity leave and make a move to prime time with Parks and Recreation. In the middle of heartfelt thanks for friends and family, Fred Armisen suddenly interrupts with a spot-on impersonation of a certain well-known New York politician. We’ll let you see how the goodbye deteriorates.

Conan O’Brien – Late Night with Conan O’Brien
Conan’s joyful, excited goodbye to Late Night with Conan O’Brien is a strange contrast to his final episode of The Tonight Show. There was no lack of emotion — Conan thanked Lorne Michaels for saving his life and the White Stripes reunited to squeeze out a heartfelt “We’re Going To Be Friends” — but there was no bad blood either. It’s just a gleefully immature Conan reveling in the goofiness of 1864 baseball or happily tearing apart his studio. What a difference a year makes.

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