The Biz: Conan O'Brien Looks Back on His Big Year
This month will mark one year since Conan O'Brien moved his sofa, desk and bone-dry sidekick, Andy Richter, to TBS and launched Conan. He's back in New York this week to tape four shows at the Beacon Theater (Monday — Thursday, 11/10c, TBS). We celebrated his homecoming with a chat about the past, present and future of late night.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you miss New York?
Conan O'Brien: Oh, yeah. We just were back two weeks ago. I had a couple days off and I went back there with the crew, and we shot a bunch of things in and around the city, and it was just this blast of adrenaline, you know? It's like on ER, when they stick that needle into someone's heart to get it going again. It's a needle of adrenaline in your left ventricle. And the people were great. I mean, everywhere I went, people were leaning out of buses: "Conan!" You know, I think people were happy to see my weird orange head.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you ever think about bringing the show back to New York full time?
O'Brien: When I moved out to Los Angeles, and I took my wife and my kids here and we made this big commitment to this, it felt like my kids actually put down roots. They like it here. I spent 21 years walking, mining, shooting every single possible remote I could think of, in and around New York City. And it's really fun to go back for a couple of days. But L.A. is like shaking up the Etch A Sketch and starting again. It's giving me a chance to maybe try and reinvent some things.
TV Guide Magazine: When you were back in New York recently you appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. How emotional was it to return to the sixth floor at Rockefeller Center where you worked for more than 20 years?
O'Brien: I walked away from that building and came out to L.A., and we all know what happened next. I hadn't been back there since. I was thinking to myself, 'This is going to be strange.' But it was really nice to do it. It just wasn't the amount of time that I spent there, it was the intensity of it. You know when I first saw it, I was a writer at Saturday Night Live. My writing partner, Greg Daniels, and I would sneak into David Letterman's studio. And I would sit at his desk and write SNL sketches. Now it's Dr. Oz's studio and it's a completely different audience... They're talking about hysterectomies.
TV Guide Magazine: You've always talked about the legacy of late night television. But it feels like a very different environment since you left The Tonight Show. How do you size it up?
O'Brien: Late night has become more democratic. When I grew up, there was one person, Johnny Carson. The first revolution was when Dave went to CBS, because there wasn't just one late night network show at 11:30. But I think what's accelerating it now is there are just so many ways people experience television. If you're obsessed with the idea of being the guy or woman who everyone gathers around at night and watches, there is no such thing. There are so many different niche shows for different types of audiences and people experience it all different times and ways. We have a younger audience, so they watch our show on DVR. I have an assistant who doesn't even own a television and she's a huge television fan. She watches on her computer. And I now have so many people that come up to me and say, "Oh, I love that thing you did." Some of them saw it at 11 o'clock on TBS. But there are so many people who saw it on the Huffington Post or on YouTube.
TV Guide Magazine: Is there pressure to come up with bits that are going to run as clips on news shows or web sites?
O'Brien: I have people on my staff come to me and say, "Oh, this will be good, because this could go viral." And I actually try and discourage it. I say our job is no different than it was in 1993. And it's no different than what Johnny's job was. You're there for an hour, and you're trying to be as entertaining as you can. The really great moments — you can't force them, they come.
TV Guide Magazine: Comedy about the presidential campaign gets replayed a lot. But your show has younger viewers who tend not to watch a lot of news. Is it harder for you to do political humor?
O'Brien: Sometimes I feel like a lot of this ground is being covered by other people. There are whole shows — Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher — that focus on it so much. We don't have as overtly a political show, and when we do stuff, we try and keep it sillier. So I don't go out of my way to try and think, "The editorial page in The Wall Street Journal is going to love this take on John Huntsman."
TV Guide Magazine: Have the parameters on what you can do changed at TBS? It's hard to imagine a couple of years ago on NBC that you could have a basketball mascot dressed as Anthony Wiener's underwear bulge.
O'Brien: That's a guy who's spent years training to be an actor. We said, "Congratulations. Now put on this underwear bulge outfit." You know, now that I'm on Turner, I'm allowed to swear. And you know what? I don't. I don't go out of my way to swear nearly as much as some other hosts.
TV Guide Magazine: What are late-night viewers getting from you that really can't get anywhere else?
O'Brien: I think there is a looseness that has evolved. I'm looser than I've ever been. You know, we built a nice little comedy lab room, and we have a very excited audience. Andy Richter and I can finish each other's sentences. The relationship I have with him is different from anything else on television. He never was a traditional sidekick. We've both been through the wars. We've both been through a lot. And so he will openly mock me in the monologue, if something isn't working. And we'll go at it. What you see when you tune in to our show is me, every night, figuring out what the hell it is. It's still evolving. It's still changing. I'm fascinated by the Internet side of my show, which is growing. It's going to sound like a joke, but it's possible that in 10 years the TV show will be a small unit that's attached to the giant octopus that is Team Coco (the show's Web site). It's a very strange thing that's happening.
TV Guide Magazine: The passion among your fans is deep. But do you ever think about how to broaden it out and get more people to sample what you're doing?
O'Brien: TBS is in the process of developing original programming and building up. They've been terrifically supportive. We always knew, "Okay, we're signing up with these guys for the long haul, and this is going to have to evolve." Also, I've always had a Field of Dreams philosophy: If you build it, they will come. If you keep putting out funny stuff, we have a culture now where it can get batted around and where people are working out in the gym and they show something funny on one of the news outlets.
TV Guide Magazine: Do the TBS people tell you not to worry about conventional day-to-day ratings?
O'Brien: Yeah. We always knew we're going to get the time and they're in the process of re-branding. They just added The Big Bang Theory to their primetime, which leads into us. And we're going to all work together and build this thing. That's the nice thing about being with these guys. They watch every single show. And they call me up, and they love the show. And they love what we're doing. We all have a clear vision of what it is we want to do here.
TV Guide Magazine: Has anyone suggested producing a version of the show that could air in broadcast syndication or other outlets?
O'Brien: There's been talk about us doing a best-of show. You know, they leave me out of those talks because I always just want to do live shows. I'm constantly just trying to get back to vaudeville. And they're like, "No, no, no. That's not what we want. Settle down, kid." I just want to put on makeup and go tap dance.
TV Guide Magazine: What happens if Turner comes to you with a contract extension?
O'Brien: I'd be fine with that. I love these guys. I have upcoming talks with Telemundo. We're going to have tapas, and we're going to talk about some stuff. That might be my only caveat with TBS.
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