By Edward Epstein
Thursday, June 24, 2021
Conan O'Brien hosts his last late-night TV show tonight, and with that one of Abraham Lincoln's biggest fans moves on to new horizons.
O'Brien, 58, hosted his first late-night show back in 1993 and tonight's show on TBS at 10 p.m. eastern time will mark the start of a new career phase for the Harvard-educated writer and humorist. He is doing a podcast and will start a weekly series for HBO Max.
Throughout his TV career, O'Brien has been upfront in talking about his adulation for Lincoln. Back in 2005, he told Time magazine: "If there was a fire in my house I'd get my wife and child out, and then I'd run back in and get a Lincoln signature that I own -- a pardon that he signed. I think I look at it every day."
As a student of humor and a practitioner of concise writing in which every word counts, O'Brien says Lincoln was unparalleled in those skills. Lincoln's skill at "keeping it short" is key, O'Brien says. "It's actually why I believe the one person whose speeches endure more than anybody is Lincoln," he said in a 2012 interview with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. "Everybody in his era was verbose."
That was famously true of the Massachusetts politician Edward Everett, who spoke for more than two hours at the Gettysburg cemetery dedication in November 1863, before Lincoln spoke, for less than two minutes and for under 275 words. As with all his speeches, Lincoln toiled every word and honed his message.
"And then Lincoln gets up and gives the Gettysburg Address. I defy anyone to find an extra word in there. He just boiled things down and had a little bit of a run and then a short phrase that just punctuates it and is haunting," O'Brien added.
He also says that Lincoln's writing is not really of the mid-19th century, which may be why his writing means so much to many people. "I though his writing was actually kind of modernist and of our times rather than of his time," O'Brien said at Harvard.