‘Amazing things will happen’: The story behind Conan O’Brien’s famous ‘Tonight Show’ quote

Conan O'Brien checks himself out backstage at his show -- and clearly likes what he sees. The host's staffers say he is actually down to earth and doesn't have an ego, but O'Brien often jokingly acts the opposite when he's on TV. CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Brinson + Banks

“All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people that watch: Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality — it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.”

When Conan O’Brien uttered those words on his final episode of “The Tonight Show” in January 2010, he didn’t expect that they would turn into a cottage industry of inspirational posters and memes.

It was a particularly painful night, as O’Brien had chosen to step down from his dream job as “Tonight Show” host when NBC decided to change the timeslot to make room for a Jay Leno program, a move O’Brien felt would destroy the historic franchise. O’Brien was crushed to say goodbye, but he wanted to urge his fans — many of whom were furious at NBC — to not be bitter.

“I remember standing backstage listening to Conan give that final send-off … and really, really having to block out what he was saying because it was starting to affect me emotionally,” said O’Brien’s longtime friend Will Ferrell, who performed “Freebird” in the final moments of the episode. “And I was kind of blown away by what he was saying. I was like, ‘Oh, I gotta stop listening, because I’m about to burst into tears.'”

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Ferrell wasn’t the only one. In the weeks after the show, his words continued to have an impact and those final lines were quoted everywhere. CNN called it “a simple statement that … has become more than just O’Brien’s parting words — it’s become advice on how to live.”

Six years later, O’Brien had no idea his speech would live on the way it did: Once, when a “Conan” staffer was looking at new apartments, he saw one where his boss’s inspirational words were written on the wall.

“There wasn’t any calculation there, that was just something that came out and it just came out right. And it’s exactly what I believe,” O’Brien said recently on the set of his show in Los Angeles. “We have a lot of interns, we have younger people that come and want advice. And that is a distillation of what I’ve told people over the years, which is, you know, talent is less interesting to me than work ethic. Meaning, lots of people have talent to some degree or another. If you had a meter that could read talent and you walked around the world with it, there would be people left and right blowing up your meter with their talent who have never figured it out, how to channel it, figured out the discipline to use it … you can achieve amazing things if you work very hard.”

“And the flip side of that too is, it’s tough, because I’m not a saint. I’m not a perfect person. I have a temper. I can have all the things that everyone has, (and) be resentful. I just work at trying to be empathetic. And I don’t always succeed — but I’ve tried to be nice to people and do the right thing by them,” he continued. “That was just a distillation of something I believe.”

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O’Brien, a father of two, said he’s glad that his final line didn’t promise fame and fortune — instead it was simply that amazing things will happen. “At the time of that quote, my kids were really young. The most important thing to me about my kids, next to their health, is that they’re nice. You gotta be nice,” he said.

“I do believe a lot in that saying, and I’ve met a lot of people who cite that back to me,” he added. “And we always end up, like, hugging.”