It's uncanny, isn't it? It's hard to say who better captured the spirit of this 1954 cover. Was it the exuberant and bright-eyed Conan O'Brien, or was it the exact replica of the original Howdy Doody puppet? It's a close call, but we think they both did a great job of helping us commemorate TV Guide's final digest-size issue before we relaunch as a full-size magazine next week. (Click here to check out the other eight recreated covers.) We spoke to the Late Night host about this unique photo shoot, his first experience with the iconic red-haired marionette and his thoughts about taking over The Tonight Show in 2009.
TVGuide.com: How was it impersonating Buffalo Bob?
They made my hair look like Buffalo Bob's, and that was traumatic for me. The [hairstylist] squirts this weird substance in my hair and starts combing it and every instinct in my body wanted to grab the comb out of his hand and say, "Not like that, you fool! Like this!" and make it look more like the "Conan hair." They literally had to tie me down in the barber chair.
TVGuide.com: You are kind of squirrelly.
I am hard to restrain. [But] the most interesting part was a guy [Alan Semok] who was there just to wrangle Howdy Doody. He knew Buffalo Bob personally, and this is an actual puppet that's been modeled after the first one. No one else could adjust the puppet; only he could. He would tell you interesting facts about the puppet during the breaks. There is part of me that wanted to grab the puppet and dunk it in caramel just to see what this guy would do.
TVGuide.com: When did you first become aware of Howdy Doody?
My first experience with Howdy Doody was watching an episode of Happy Days where The Howdy Doody Show comes to town and Buffalo Bob is actually in it, playing himself.
TVGuide.com: So as a kid, no one ever called you "Howdy Doody" because of the red hair?
I'd hear about it occasionally. An older person like, a camp counselor, would say, "Hey, Howdy Doody!"
TVGuide.com: And then you'd kick him in the shins.
Exactly. But mostly I got a hard time for my first name because Conan the Barbarian was starting to become a thing by the early '70s. That's what people made fun of me for. They had something more recent they could ridicule me about.
TVGuide.com: What do you have in common with Howdy Doody?
I'm controlled by others, I have artificial joints and I have no soul. And these freckles are painted on.
TVGuide.com: Is there a line that leads from Howdy Doody to Late Night's Triumph the Insult Comic Dog puppet?
If you wanted the simplest way to understand how America changed between 1954 and 2005, it would be [that] we've mutated from Howdy Doody to Triumph. That's either really good news or bad news for America. I'm suspecting it's bad news.
TVGuide.com: This cover photo is a bit of a goof — in a tremendously good way, of course. When you take over The Tonight Show in a few years, will you be veering away from doing this type of thing?
I think anybody who knows me knows that I surrendered my dignity a long, long time ago and there's no getting it back, so what you see is what you get. It'll just be on an hour earlier. I think when someone comes up with a goofy idea, a silly idea, I'll still be interested in doing it down the road. I got this far being this "Conan O'Brien," so I think I'll just put all my money on red.
TVGuide.com: No pun intended.
No pun intended, sadly.
TVGuide.com: Do you ever feel that you now have a limited amount of time to do things under the radar? Sometimes I watch your show and think, "I can't believe they just got away with that."
Well, a couple of years ago I hosted the Emmys, and there are things that I did differently without even thinking about it just because it was a slightly different venue. You make unconscious adjustments. But I was still really happy with it because it was my sense of humor and I did the kind of stuff that I like.
TVGuide.com: You can only go with what you think is funny and hope that everyone else agrees with you.
Well, right. If you're interested in comedy, [even] when you were, like, in third grade, you know when something's funny or not. Occasionally on our show, because we do such a volume business, we do some stuff that I'm like, "I didn't love that, but it was [taping time] and we had to go." We do about 200 shows a year, and I'm not telling you that every single one reflects what I think is the funniest thing in the world, but more often than not I try to cut anything that seems lame to me and just try to get the funniest stuff [on]. When it's time for me to do The Tonight Show, starting a year and a half beforehand, I'm going to generate as many funny ideas as I can and I'm going to get as many funny people to help me and we're going to try to do a really funny show every day. Undoubtedly there'll be problems here and there, but my guess is, if that's our philosophy, that'll work.
TVGuide.com: But there will be more ass-kissing from celebrities for you on The Tonight Show, right?
Them kissing my ass? It's about time, but I don't think so. I don't tend to inspire that in people, in a good way. They seem more than happy to make a joke at my expense, which seems to be part of the show, so why not?