In Depth

A Candid Conan: Why 'Tonight' Matters

It's been three months since Conan O'Brien hosted his last "Late Night." While he's been off the air, he's hardly been out of the spotlight.

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Following the lead of predecessor Jay Leno, Mr. O'Brien spent a big chunk of his late-night interregnum touring the country, visiting NBC affiliates in dozens of cities, part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to build good will with his de facto bosses at the station level.

Mr. O'Brien has kept a somewhat lower media profile during most of his break from broadcasting. But that's changed in recent weeks in the lead-up to his June 1 "Tonight Show" takeover, with Mr. O'Brien popping up on the covers of publications as diverse as Parade to the New York Times Magazine.

Two weeks ago, he also made time to chat with TelevisionWeek Editor Josef Adalian about preparations for the transition, the cultural significance of his new job and why he hopes to still be jumping on top of his desk when he's in his seventies.

An edited transcript of their conversation follows:

TelevisionWeek: So it's almost June 1. Are you freaked out yet?

Conan O'Brien: I'm in a very serene state of denial. They've told me it's June 1, 2011, which has helped me stay very calm. I've been hypnotized into believing I've got two years left to prepare.

TVWeek: You've had a long build-up to the takeover.

Mr. O'Brien: Yeah, [we've had] five years. But most of those five years, you have to host the "Late Night" show. You have to give that 100% of your attention. We've only been able to switch to hyperdrive since Feb. 20. And I spent a month of that on the road going on my affiliate wam-a-jam.

TVWeek: How was touring the country, visiting with local stations? It seemed a very Jay Leno kind of thing to do.

Mr. O'Brien: I think it's what you do, especially since these are the guys putting on the show. I took the band Phish with me. It was a beautiful happening.

TVWeek: Did Dave do a tour?

Mr. O'Brien: I think he did. I don't know if it was as extensive. I think I may have set some record with the 30-city tour. That may be a new record in the neediness hall of fame.

TV Week: Is your job as host of "The Tonight Show" different than your job as host of "Late Night"? Is your mission different now that you're hosting a franchise that is even more legendary than what Letterman handed you with "Late Night"?

Mr. O'Brien: Fundamentally, there probably isn't a difference. I think these shows are an extension of the hosts' personality.

They go out there every night. They comment on what happened that day. They try and make people laugh. They interview people. So in a very fundamental sense, the mission doesn't really change that much. The rest of it, you have to get into the show in order to find out. There are ways in which this show will probably change me, but it's hard for me to say how that's going to be in a vacuum.

I might sound a little bit arrogant if I say, "Well, as 'The Tonight Show' host, I'm the chosen representative of America." Those thoughts probably lead to madness. A good "Tonight Show" host is someone who is just following their instincts and trying to put on a funny show every night and let the rest follow from that.

TVWeek: Is late night, specifically "The Tonight Show," still the institution it once was? How has it changed since the last time someone took over? Is it easier?

Mr. O'Brien: I wouldn't say it's easier at all. There was a time when "The Tonight Show" was the only game in town. I envy that position. It'd be nice if this was the only show. Now we're living in a world where there are 35 shows out there. And because the culture and the technology are changing so rapidly, you have to work all that much harder to stay relevant.

My job, in a way, is to figure out as we go along what is this latest version of "The Tonight Show." I accept that my "Tonight Show" is never going to mean to the country as a whole what Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" meant because television's changed too fundamentally. He was the only person. No late-night show has that monopoly now. But that said, to a certain extent ... it's all about the host. Jay's show has changed since he started. It's important for the host of "The Tonight Show" to keep changing and evolving as he goes along.

TVWeek: What was your thinking about the set?

Mr. O'Brien: I wanted it to look like a really high-end steak restaurant. We did a lot of polling and most Americans are very comfortable in a steak restaurant. I literally want people salivating when I'm in the monologue mark.

I was talking with [production designers] and said, look, "The Tonight Show" is this 60-year-old franchise, and it's very important that we take it seriously. I'm going to put my stamp on it and, unfortunately, there's no altering my core personality now. But I said to them, I think this show should look elegant. It should be a beautiful space. We should acknowledge that I'm not in New York anymore, that I'm in L.A., but in a way that feels like it has some connection to our past in New York. And that led to deco, because art deco was a movement that has a distinct New York version and a distinct L.A. version. So we went with L.A. deco. It's 30 Rock, but it's this cool Los Angeles version of it.

You know, Rick Ludwin [head of late night for NBC] came in the other day and said, "It's beautiful, it's beautiful." He said, "It looks like 'The Tonight Show.'" And what he meant was, it doesn't look like Jay Leno's "Tonight Show." It just looks like the "Tonight Show." That's nice.

TVWeek: Even the logo ties into the deco phase.

Mr. O'Brien: I really do love the logo. Logos are tricky. They need to be something that can endure being slapped on a lot of locations and still work. They have to be like a metal brand that you can put on anything and it works.

TVWeek: You pay a lot of attention to these details.

Mr. O'Brien: I felt this way when I took over the "Late Night" show from Letterman. I take the responsibility of these kinds of things very seriously. When I took over "Late Night," I really felt the sense of experimentation and play and fearlessness that David Letterman's show had. I didn't want to do anything remotely like what Dave did, but I wanted us to keep that spirit.

Now it's a trust that I've been handed. And I have different concerns now than I did in 1993. In 1993, when I was young punk I didn't care what the lighting was. I was all about just the ideas. Now I've evolved somewhat in that I want people who come on the show to look good. I want things to have an elegance. One of our aims should be that really funny things happen on the show, but that people look good, too.

People haven't fallen asleep quite yet. I'm used to my viewers being completely conked out. I do think the visual statement is important on this show.

TVWeek: Are you still as much of a comedy student, almost a comedy snob, as you were when you took over "Late Night"?

Mr. O'Brien: I take the comedy really seriously. I want it to be funny. I'm not comfortable doing things that aren't funny. That's like nails on a blackboard to me. If I know something's no good but I know we can get away with it, that makes me very uncomfortable.

Any host like myself is in a volume business. You don't do shows when you feel you have all the best material. You do shows every night because you have to do a show every night, and so sometimes something's not ready but you do it anyway. That's just built into the job: You can't be in love with every piece you perform.

That said, I'm always going to really care about something being funny. That's just my nature. One of the evolutions that happens to you is, when I was 30, I cared about the comedy almost to the exclusion of everything else. When I first started doing the job I had an almost condescending attitude toward interviews. I just thought, "Look, I just want to set the world on fire with my strange ideas. I wanted to show people that we were completely fearless."

I learned fairly quickly that the part of the show where you sit and talk to Marisa Tomei is really important, too. And it's got to be good. That's when I figured out "How do I be myself?" in that kind of environment. I learned to care about those kinds of things.

TVWeek: You've changed a lot over the last 16 years, in other words.

Mr. O'Brien: The biggest misperception is that suddenly Conan's shifting from 1993 "Late Night" to 2009 "Tonight Show". Well, no. There's a Conan that hosted the show in 1998 that's different than 1993. And there's a Conan who hosted the Emmys twice, who had to grow and adjust to do that. There have been specific phases you go through. In the last two years of "Late Night," we really changed and expanded Act 1. We'd do full-blown sketches from the monologue. If people haven't been paying attention, and they tune in again in early June, they might think, "Oh, he completely, radically changed himself." Well, no I didn't. It's been a long time coming.

TVWeek: It's sort of hard for me to think of the young guy I first interviewed in 1993 is now just four years away from turning 50 and a father of two. Does it feel natural?

Mr. O'Brien: I don't think it does to anybody. I used to think people in their 70s probably feel very old. I realize now, Oh, no they don't. They probably feel a lot like I do. If they're lucky, they feel pretty good and they have pretty good energy and they have a lot they want to accomplish. You just get a different perspective. I really don't feel any different than I did in 1993. I have a tremendous amount of energy, and I like being physical in my comedy. I have wondered sometimes, 'Wait a minute, can you jump up on a desk and dance with Mr. T when you turn 50? Is that going to be cool?' And then I realize, you just can't think about it. I'm going to keep doing what feels right to me until they give me the hook. And then I'll do it on the Internet.

TVWeek: You still seem like the same guy you were back in the 1990s. You still seem normal.

Mr. O'Brien: It's funny. That can be exaggerated. I'd like to pretend that I'm a completely normal person, but I definitely have my moments. There can be a belief that, 'Oh, he's like Richie Cunningham. And then he hangs up the phone and he goes down to do a show, and it doesn't seem to get to him." But I take things very seriously. I almost get into an intense, anxious depression when I've got to do a performance or be funny.

That's always been with me. I've been that way my entire life. I was that way when I had to write a "Simpsons" script. I was that way when I had to write a "Saturday Night Live" sketch. I've been that way throughout my entire "Late Night" hosting career.

I don't just walk around with a chipper smile. But I think people don't see that as often. I think that would be the biggest misperception about me. People that know the television Conan and who then hang around me for a bit are sometimes a little taken aback. 'He's lying on the couch, and he's just staring. What's going on? He seems really anxious!" I get that way.

TVWeek: Maybe it's not that you're still "normal." But you're still you.

Mr. O'Brien: That is true. Look, if I haven't changed now, I don't think it's ever gonna happen. People who have known me a long time have always said, "You're the same person who was in improv class with me," or, "You're the same person that was in high school with me." And I think that's true. It's a product of how I grew up.

I think that's also true of the people who work with me, too. If I start to get out of line with Mike Sweeney or Jeff Ross they're going to let me know. Nobody kisses up to me. I wish they did. But nobody does. And every now and then when someone does, I just find it creepy and annoying. I think it's good that I have a team of people that are gonna tell me when something's not good enough. Match that with my own self-hate, and you have a pretty good recipe.

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Filed under: Conan O'Brien, The Tonight Show