Conan O’Brien Talks About His Crazy Year

You can gauge the major upheavals in Conan O’Brien’s career by his facial hair.

A couple of years ago, when a writers strike brought production of Late Night to a standstill, the famously boyish-looking host emerged with a beard — the first of his life — that he said he grew out of solidarity with his staff. Then, in January, when his brief run on The Tonight Show ended after a notorious spat with NBC, during which he elected to leave the show rather than agreeing to move its time slot to make way for the return of Jay Leno, the first thing he did was to stop shaving.

He kept the beard as he set out on this summer’s Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, which showcased his musical skills and poked fun at his be-quiet-or-else contractual settlement with NBC. It’s still there in promos for his new late-night show Conan, which comes to TBS beginning Nov. 8.

The question is, will it be around come showtime?

O’Brien answered this and many other questions during our 40-minute chat, which also reveals how he plans to address the situation with NBC, why he stayed in Los Angeles, and why he never watches late-night talk shows.

Channel Guide Magazine: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

Conan O’Brien: That’s OK. I’m a Conan impersonator. Conan’s too busy.

CGM: Wow. The voice resemblance is uncanny.

CO: We found a guy with a reedy, irritating voice, and we pay him to talk to people. Where are you, by the way?

CGM: I’m in Milwaukee, actually.

CO: Oh wow. How’s the weather?

CGM: Pretty good. Very autumnal.

CO: Yeah, I miss that, being out here.

CGM: I remember seeing your spots on the local news here last summer when you were running around the country promoting The Tonight Show.

CO: Yeah, I put a lot of work into those, and it all worked out really well, I think.

CGM: You’ve launched two talk shows in the past, but they’ve both been new incarnations of existing shows. How has it been creating something entirely new?

CO: So far, it’s been really fun, because the whole experience really since January has felt like we’re making everything up as we go along. Do you know what I mean? It’s sort of like a quarterback when the plan doesn’t go right, he just starts scrambling, and sometimes it can be sort of chaotic looking, but sometimes it actually works. That’s kind of what it’s felt like a little bit, because the Twitter was improvised. It wasn’t anything I had planned on doing. And then the tour was an extension of that. Then meeting up with TBS and deciding this could be a nice place to be, and then winding up here putting together this show, yeah, it’s a very new experience for me, because before I had been working within established franchises, which I loved and I really enjoyed doing that, but this has sort of a different feel. This feels a little bit like a pirate ship that I’m on, and I like that. I think that’s why I grew a beard. There’s a little bit of a feeling that we’ve gone rogue, and I think that’s really fun. There’s a lot of good comedy that can come out of that. It’s kind of nice also that we just make these decisions, and we’ve been given really incredible free rein by the people at TBS, so I’ll just say, “OK, this is what we’re going to call the show and this is what the set is going to look like and this is what the logo is going to look like,” and they just say, “Sounds good to us. Go for it.”

CGM: The downside, I guess, is now you have no one to blame if it all goes wrong.

CO: Well, secretly, I always blame myself because I’m Catholic. No matter what happens, I blame myself. You know, Chernobyl, I blame myself. It’s all ultimately my fault. I like to distribute some of that to my parents. Secretly, I never blamed anyone but my parents, really. It’s all their fault. My mother and father are responsible for everything that’s gone wrong in my life, and I’m responsible for everything that’s gone good.

CGM: Sounds fair. About Twitter, and the tour you did over the summer, did you view those at the time as preparation for the show, or were those a separate deal?

CO: No, I think now it feels like it’s all of a piece, because I went through this sort of cataclysmic event, but all this good stuff came out of it. Like I said, I went on Twitter because I really had no choice. There was no other way that I could reach out to people and do my thing. That was improvised, but I started to realize, “Wait a minute, this is a really good joke format.” You’re limited to so many words, it’s almost like a haiku. … You can have an impact, your personality can actually shine through a little bit, if you think about them for more than five minutes. That, and of course the idea of doing the tour was an extension of what happened on the last Tonight Show, which was the jam with Will Ferrell and all those great musicians, Beck, Billy Gibbons. This was an extension of that. I just thought, “I really like playing music. I’ve always loved playing music with my band. We could just put together a silly vaudeville show and take it on the road.” I really believe that all those things happened because I was in a very particular, strange situation. I do think all of those things are probably going to influence what this next show is. Do you know what I mean? I do think the Internet and music will be more of a component of this next show, just because this whole show is sort of a happening. It’s an organic response to a situation that I found myself in. None of this was planned. … A year ago I couldn’t have predicted any of this, but it’s certainly been fascinating.

CGM: Was there a time during all this, even during the tour, where you thought about not doing another show? Everyone expected you to land somewhere, but did you think about going in a different direction with your career?

CO: Yeah, I did. You have all kinds of thoughts, but what I always came back to is I really like performing. The tour is not something you can do — I’m not a good enough singer or musician to do that for a living — that’s always been a hobby. Also, the charm of that would have worn off. Do you know what I mean? That was a moment to play. (mock enthusiasm) “Conan’s coming out again this summer!” “Conan’s coming to your town with his band, and he’s going to play funny songs about how his life got screwed over!” That would get really old really fast. Obviously I love to write, and there are a lot of different ways you can express yourself, but I really like this format, and I did feel, gee, I loved doing the Late Night show, I loved doing The Tonight Show, and that’s always felt like a great format for me for what I like to do, which is just to play. That’s what I said on one of the last Tonight Shows, “Let’s just have fun on television.” That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, and let’s forget all this drama and craziness and hyperbole and remember that I like having fun on television. That’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, and I think that’s what pulled me back into this. It’s funny though, you’re right, there was a period after all this happened where … it’s like you’re in a big car accident. Your first thought is not to jump right back into another car. But I found myself realizing — and my wife was the one who really pointed it out — “This is what you do. You’re driving all of us crazy. You’re doing a show in the house.” My first tweet about doing a show with a squirrel, interviewing a squirrel and throwing to commercial, that was real. I had done thousands of hours of this kind of television and suddenly I was in my house growing a beard. It was a very strange feeling, and it put me in touch with [the fact that] I’m lucky to get to do this. I love to do it. I think I have more to offer. As soon as I realize I have no more to offer, I’ll do six more years and get out.

CGM: Well, you’ve mentioned the beard a couple times, and that’s definitely something I wanted to talk about. During the writers strike, you grew the beard, and now it’s back. Is it just always something you’ve always wanted to do, and are we going to see it on the new show?

CO: I’ve still got it right now. My feeling was, the beard kind of always happens naturally. It happened during the writers strike. At first you grow it because you have to shave every day when you’re on television, and I hate shaving. I have hypersensitive skin, and I just loved not shaving. I don’t particularly love having a beard, I just like not shaving. I think like a lot of guys, it’s just more fun not to shave. So during the writers strike I remember not shaving and then realizing I’m going to wear this on the air to sort of make these shows — I didn’t want to pretend that we had our writers, I wanted to be very clear about the fact that we don’t have our writers and I want my writers to come back. So those shows really stuck out. They were very different, and I think the beard was this way of telling you that things are different. Do you know what I mean? It was my way of sending out a signal that these shows are different. Something happened. We’re going through something right now. As soon as the strike was over, I shaved the beard. I grew a beard, it’s the first thing I did after my last Tonight Show. I stopped shaving, and then I realized as I started to get ready for the tour, “I’m just going to keep this, because I’ve gone through such a profound change that I’m just going to keep this going for a while.” My kids hated it, but I’ve noticed lately that my kids have stopped talking about it, because they’re so used to it. And my wife at first said, “I’m not sure.” But then everyone seems to like it if I keep it close-cropped. It’s when it becomes a hillbilly “the reverend is comin’ to get my still” … when I get the Ted Kaczynski look going, that’s when people get disturbed.

CGM: So you still have to care for it a little, unfortunately.

CO: Yes, that’s the thing, is it’s maintenance. If I had to guess, I would say the beard will not stay with me for the long haul, because I don’t think I’m a beard guy. But I could see the beard being with me for a little while, and I think if I were going to get rid of the beard now, it’s become such a thing that I would probably incorporate it into the show. Do you know what I mean? If the beard came off, we could have a giant tractor pull where trucks pull the beard off my face. And the trucks are driven by top celebrities. Tom Cruise is in one truck, and Snooki is in another truck.

CGM: (Groans)

CO: I did say “top celebrities.” The beard is torn from my face on-camera. All things have to happen on-camera now, including the birth of my next child.

CGM: Yeah, you can’t just tweet the shaving of the beard.

CO: No, it has to be witnessed. My guess is the beard is sticking around. There’s a little bit of Viking quality to all of it. Everything that happened, and the sort of fan movement that came out of this, it’s all felt a little bit like a Viking raid. So, I don’t know, having a reddish-tinged beard feels appropriate right now. And then I’m sure it’ll be shaved into a turn-of-the-century policeman muttonchops at some point, and I’ll carry a nightstick every night.

CGM: You’re known to revere the late-night talk show traditions of shows like Late Night and especially The Tonight Show. Are you looking to bring that to cable, or will Conan be something that’s really out of that mold?

CO: My analogy is when you come out with a new car that’s radically different from any other car, it still has four wheels, a steering wheel and some kind of conventional seating. I think this show will still have the skeleton that a lot of these shows have and the way that I’ve been working since 1993, which is coming out and greeting the crowd, addressing them. You have to have guests. There’s no way in the world that you can do a show for an hour [without guests], and that’s often my favorite part of the show. That can be very unpredictable. … The standard setup will be the same. That said, I’d like the show to reflect a lot of the things that are different now, and the fact that I’m on basic cable now. And I say that not in a bad way, but in a good way. I think there’s a lot of ways that we can evolve into something else. One thing people often don’t understand about these shows is that you don’t unveil a finished product on the first night. My plan is to have a really good time, have a few memorable moments, and what I’ve told my writers is we’re going to find this show by doing it. It’s by the doing of the show and by being open to change and trying things that we’re going to [get it right]. The Late Night show went through a long evolution. My whole career in late-night television has been an evolution, or devolution, or however you want to look at it. That’s what has to happen here is yeah, there’s got to be a lot of the skeleton or the blueprint of what these shows are, and then we see what we can do with this thing. Because mostly what I’d like to do with this show is surprise myself. I’d like to amuse myself. I’d like to a year from now realize, “Wow, we started here on Nov. 8, and look at how much things changed.” That to me is a sign of a healthy show, especially in the beginning.

CGM: Why did you stay in L.A. and not go back to New York?

CO: I sort of felt like I did so many years in New York — and I loved doing the show in New York — but I did so many years in New York and then spent years preparing for this big move to Los Angeles, and then after just a couple of months, that plan got derailed. There was part of me that thought, “Wait a minute. I moved my whole family out here. I moved my whole staff.” It really did feel like that thing I did on the first Tonight Show where I ran across the country. It really did feel like this epic move to get us all out here and to depart New York and to say goodbye to my home. Then we’re here and we’re starting to explore this new space and we went through that event, and a lot of people’s first reactions were, “Oh, I guess you’ll go back to New York now.” And I thought, “Well, you know what, I made this move,” and maybe it’s stubborn Irish but I just thought, “We’re going to make it work here.” Do you know what I mean? I got my kids into school, all of us came out here and I think also I still believe that creatively that after 16 years and a couple of thousand shows in New York, there’s a new world to be explored here. Creatively, this might give me a new lease. I really enjoyed doing the Tonight Shows that we did in Los Angeles, so I thought, “OK, let’s just keep going. Let’s stick with the plan.” … So then the next show will be in Guam.

CGM: Now, obviously, everyone is going to be wondering what you might have to say about your previous employer. Are you planning to address that situation much, maybe get it out of the way and move on, or are you taking a different approach?

CO: I think it’s — look, everybody knows about it, so to the degree that anything in that world can be funny, or there’s an opportunity … I mean, I’m a comedian, and this is the big thing in my life that everybody knows about other than me being really tall and having weird hair. Anywhere I go, this is what people know about, so I imagine it will be something that we address comedically or that I respond to or react to. But generally, I think people want to see me come out and do a funny show. Me ranting about what happened or going on about it seems like a waste of time, and also a waste of an opportunity. I think to the degree that it’s there, at least for a while it’ll be the elephant in the room, so we have to address it and be funny about it but not angry and not self-pitying or anything like that because that’s not how I feel. To the degree that it can be funny, then fine, but I don’t want to be out there every night bitching, because no one wants to hear that, especially these days.

CGM: Having been out of the talk show game for a few months, were you able to gain a different perspective by watching many talk shows?

CO: Oh God, no. I realized how much I don’t like these shows. That’s what I realized. I realized how much I really like documentaries about Stalin building a railroad or something. It’s funny, because this is what I do. I have never in my down time gravitated toward [talk shows], I never watched a lot of late-night talk shows. I never did. I probably wouldn’t watch mine. This is a weird thing to say, but if I wasn’t me, I don’t know that I’d be watching me. There, you can have fun with that. I’d certainly think I was attractive. I’d be my favorite of everybody, but I don’t think I’d watch me. That’s the craziest quote ever. I think this is true of other comedians that I’ve talked to — a lot of us are drawn to things that have nothing to do with what we do for a living. Do you know what I mean? So, I like the Discovery Channel and the History channel and I like watching epic dramas about Cromwell or something. Sometimes I’ll come home and my wife will just want to watch a really funny sitcom or a really good show, and sometimes I’ll have to be talked into it because I don’t even want to see something funny, because I’ve spent the whole day trying to think of what’s funny. So watching it is a little, it’s the busman’s holiday syndrome, where it’s kind of the last thing in the world you want to do. What I did watch, which will probably influence the new show is … I spent a lot of time with my kids, so I watched a lot of Nickelodeon and Disney Channel shows for little kids. That will probably influence the new show. I think the new show will strongly appeal to children between the ages of 5 and 7. If you really want to know what the new show’s going to be like, you should probably check out Yo Gabba Gabba. That’s pretty much what it’s going to be, or The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.

CGM: My kids are a little young for Suite Life, but that sounds fun.

CO: My kids watch Yo Gabba Gabba. There’s a couple that we let them watch, and then once their show ended and my son figured out how to turn the channel and we walked in and they were watching Suite Life [on Deck], which is not one of the approved shows. We had left the room for 10 minutes, and we come in and they’re watching Suite Life, and I was like, “Guys, this is not one of the shows that you can watch,” and I look up on the screen and the kids on the show are having an argument with a bald monk who figures into that episode, and I look at the bald monk and I realize it’s Andy. Andy Richter had done a spot on Suite Life [on Deck]. That’s when I realized, “I gotta get everybody back to work.”

CGM: Going back a little to your rise on Twitter, and the tour, there was just so much goodwill toward you, and that has to feel different this time as you’re launching the new show. With Late Night, you were unknown, and then with The Tonight Show, people were skeptical about whether your humor would translate. But now you’ve got a big following and lots of momentum, and it feels like you’re delivering this product to a ready-made audience.

CO: It feels like a good fit, instinctively. But I don’t think anybody knows anything. Comedy is not a science. I think you just try, and if you have an ear for it and you keep trying, you’ll find some stuff. I’m pretty humble about that aspect of it, but I have to say this feels like a really good fit. From the first day I met [Turner Entertainment Networks president] Steve Koonin and talked to the TBS people — we’ve already done a lot of work together, talked a lot together and had a million meetings and made promos — it feels like we really click. I don’t know. Look, I’d love to say yep, it’s all going to be great. I’ve been through too much in the last nine months to be able to just say that. But I can promise you we’re going to hit our bumps creatively. We’re not going to debut with a perfect product. We’re going to have to find it, but I do think there’s a great spirit to this new project that feels like the same spirit we brought to the tour, and I think that could be really interesting on television. I’m very much excited about it. I know you talk to a lot of people who tell you how excited they are about their new TV show, you’ve heard that a million times, but there’s something about this phase of my life that feels like I’ve slipped into another gear, and I’m very excited to see what I can do with this cable show. I’ve spent so many years in this other context and now suddenly I have this opportunity to maybe try and reinvent a few things here and there, which sounds grand and highfalutin — some things will work, some things won’t. But there’s been such a great spirit with everything the last nine months, and the outpouring of affection from people and just the fun and the creativity of the last nine months with the tour has felt like what could have been a terrible period in my life may turn out to be a great period in my life in terms of my work, so let’s go with this. Let’s really try and see what we can come up with. I’m very excited about the possibilities on TBS. I’m really excited about the possibilities of this new show and what we could do. It does feel like what I’ve said before, that I was on a big cruise ship and now I’m on a smaller pirate vessel … but it has a cannon, I’m a little crazy, and it could be interesting to watch.

CGM: With the move to cable, is there a concern about the caliber or profile of guests you’ll be able to get consistently, not being on a major broadcast network?

CO: I don’t think so. The reality is, there are a lot of these shows. When I started … now I feel like an old man, but back in ’93, there were hardly any. Then over the years, as you know, there’s just a lot of these shows, and the media is splintering and … it’s going to splinter more. Probably by the time I hang up on the phone with you there’ll be 75 more talk shows available in saline solution drops, and a mister that will let you inhale the show, and a cookie you can eat where you experience what Montel is thinking. So there’s just going to be more and more of these. … I think I’ve been around long enough and I have enough relationships that we’ll get big names to come on the show, but what I’m more interested in than big names is people that I can make great television with. Those are not always the biggest stars. Sometimes they are. If it’s Tom Hanks, it is. Or Jim Carrey, or Will Ferrell. Yes, there are many examples of big stars being the greatest guests you can have in that situation. Or Chris Rock. Then there are other situations where what I really want to do is use what I perceive to be some of the freedom I have now to find people that you’re not seeing anywhere else. People that I have great chemistry with. That’s something that I’m not sure we’ll have it figured out exactly the first show. … Although we could probably get a really big name for the first show, I’m much more interested in debuting with someone that I have great chemistry with. To just get us started off on a good note, rather than, you know, “For the first time, Tiger Woods talks about what he’s been through.” Do you know what I mean? That’s just not [what we do]. To me, booking has and always will be an evolution. It’s a jungle out there. There’s a lot of shows and a lot of competition. We always seem to do really well, but I’m much more interested in finding new people, if that’s possible, and whether that’s through the Internet or Twitter, I’ll do that, too.

CGM: So it sounds like you’re planning to keep up with Twitter and the presence you’ve established online.

CO: Yeah. We actually put out a web video this morning. That’s the kind of thing where it’s too rich in comedic possibilities. To me, the web is interesting as much as you can be creative with it. The live shows that just show live tweets at the bottom or they try and incorporate it that way, I think, “Well, that’s not really doing anything with it.” But if we got to know Sarah Killen, the one person I’m following on Twitter, if we really got to know her and she became a character, and I got involved in her life, that would be fascinating. It could be very funny, and then you’ve got something. The media is all changing so fast, and the biggest thing that I’ve learned in the last year is stay loose and go with it. Don’t fight it. There’s a lot of change that’s happening right now, and try not to let it make you uptight or reactive or defensive. Try and just go with it. Like I say, there’s a quality to these little down and dirty web videos that you can make now that are really fascinating. Comedically, it’s very interesting. They’re so low-rent. You send them out, and it’s like a message in a bottle. … I think when we go on the air, to suddenly stop using Twitter, or to stop tweeting after everything I’ve been through, would be a huge wasted opportunity.

CGM: Will any part of the show be live?

CO: Well, it can’t really be live. It’ll be what it has been, which is called live-to-tape. We never stop, which means we start the show, and I think there were maybe three times in my entire career where we stopped the show. Once was because a monitor started to break loose and it could’ve fallen and killed either Andy or I or both of us, so I stopped the show. Once when someone had an epileptic seizure in the audience that was caused by the applause sign flashing, who then later told me in the hallway after they had recovered, “Yeah, this happens every time I go to a talk show. It happened at Regis.” And I thought, “You might not want to go to these anymore.” But that wouldn’t have read well in the press, “Conan Bans Epileptic.” Because of the time difference, what really works best — and everyone does it because it works — is around 5 o’clock you do the show. I like to keep in as many of the mistakes as possible because usually that’s the funniest part of the show. And if you have to do a little edit or something, you know, Dame Judi Dench starts shouting “testicles” over and over again, which she loves to do, we can edit that out. Or loop it and make it the entire interview, which is probably what we’re going to do on the new show. The shows are virtually live. They’d never be live live, because if you did it live for the East Coast, it wouldn’t be live for the West Coast, so you might as well take the time to leave half an hour and edit out Dame Judi Dench’s crazy rant about testicles. I don’t know why she does it. I honestly don’t know why she does it. Nobody can talk to her about it.

CGM: What’s it like around the office as production is ramping up?

CO: It’s like this: Imagine putting a giant pot of cold water on a flame, and for a while nothing seems to be happening and you freak out. What happened is, if you came and visited us two months ago, it would have been me and literally three other people at these offices at Warner Bros. No furniture. People thought those two videos I’ve done where there’s the empty office that’s unpainted and the one desk — a lot of people thought that was a joke — that’s really my office. There’s a lot of the stuff getting decided and designed and deals being made to have people come in, but that means they don’t come in for another month. The construction’s all happening, but nothing’s downstairs. So for a long time you keep putting your hand in the pot and it’s still cold. And you think, “What’s going on?” You start to panic a little bit. I would say, starting mid-August, I did feel the pot and it was like, “Oh, it feels kind of lukewarm now.” Then you start to go downstairs and you see, “Oh, now stuff is showing up.” Now, you walk around our offices and it’s like a beehive. Now there are those tiny bubbles rising to the surface in the water and by Nov. 8 we’ll be at a scalding high boil. And then, what I want to do is I want the pot to flow over and scald the other networks with hot water. I love to take analogies too far. Every day now there’s more and more to do, there are more and more people here, and you can feel this thing coming to life, which is really exciting, because there’s a period there in July when I’m telling people, “Don’t worry, folks, it’s going to be great!” then I’d hang up the phone and it would be me and 9,000 square feet of empty space, looking out a window with a single tear rolling down my cheek.

CGM: Last question: Do you like the name Coco?

CO: I hated it. When it first came along, I hated it, and then I just thought, “You know what, go with it.” In some ways it saved my ass, you know? Tom Hanks improvises a name and it sticks and becomes a movement. In some ways it’s been one of the better things that’s happened to me in my life. So what, am I going to bitch about the name? If I can survive Conan, I can survive Coco.