After almost 28 years in late night, Conan O’Brien wraps up his talk show this week. The third of his three talk shows, Conan launched on TBS in 2010, after 16 years on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien and a too short stint hosting The Tonight Show. As you can expect, the last few weeks of Conan have been bittersweet and full of nostalgia for the unique style of comedy O’Brien brought to late night, with some of his best recurring guests returning for a final interview. When that slate of guests was announced earlier this month, though, the lack of one name in particular really stood out. Where was Paul Rudd?
A Rudd appearance was expected not just because he’s a great talk show guest who has real chemistry with O’Brien and thus guarantees a fun interview, but because of one specific running gag that has defined Rudd’s appearances on O’Brien’s shows since 2004. In February 2004 Rudd surprised O’Brien during an interview by claiming to have a clip from the then-upcoming Friends finale that he could reveal exclusively on Late Night. What he showed was something else entirely, though—an inexplicable clip of a boy in a wheelchair flying off the side of a cliff and crashing into water below, with the weirdly shaped head of some kind of alien puppet popping up from the bottom of the frame at the last moment. People who were familiar with one of the worst movies of all time, Mac & Me, recognized the clip immediately (including me, who actually saw this movie in the theater when I was a kid). Whether you knew what it was from or not, substituting this absurd bit of film for an actual clip from whatever project Rudd was promoting was both a hilarious subversion of expectations and a goofy critique of talk show insincerity.
The first time Rudd did this was before YouTube, before widespread streaming, even before many people had a DVR, so if you missed this episode when it aired you probably wouldn’t even know about it unless a friend mentioned it or you read about it somewhere. So when Rudd returned to Late Night and did it again, it was just as funny and unexpected as the first time. And then he did it again, and again, moving the gag to Conan after O’Brien launched the show on TBS. It’s become about as beloved a bit as any of O’Brien’s regular characters or segments, and whenever Rudd’s announced as a guest fans know they’ll see that clip of Mac & Me once more.
Rudd wasn’t announced as one of O’Brien’s final guests, though. If they were going to give this bit the sendoff it deserves, it would have to come in another way, without the framing of a Rudd interview. And that’s exactly what they did. Last night’s guest was Bill Hader, who at one point shares a story about a (presumably fictional) Saturday Night Live sketch that he and Rudd did that never made it past dress rehearsal. Hader blames Rudd for the sketch’s failure, which brings out a surprise cameo from the man himself. Eventually Rudd tells Conan that they actually have a clip of the sketch from that one dress rehearsal, and then throws it to what everybody was hoping to see.
Again, it’s long been difficult for the Mac & Me clip to be an actual surprise—even if you don’t watch O’Brien’s talk shows, the rise of YouTube and social media popularized the bit. If Rudd was listed as a guest, the only questions were how he would work it in this time, and what he would say during the build-up to try and make O’Brien think he would actually run a real clip. Having Rudd make an unannounced cameo during somebody else’s interview let this final farewell to the Mac & Me clip have the sense of surprise that it used to have when Rudd started this gag over 15 years ago. And the final kicker in Rudd’s story is the perfect way to cap the whole thing off.
If you haven’t seen Rudd’s final Conan appearance yet, here’s the YouTube video. You can probably expect more wistful goodbyes and nostalgic farewells over the final three episodes of Conan between now and Thursday. And if this is the first you’ve heard about O’Brien leaving late night, don’t worry; he’ll still be on TV, with his travel specials running on TBS, and an upcoming variety show launching on HBO Max in the future.