Thanks to Twitter, the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, and a smattering of viral videos, Conan O'Brien's extended absence from the airwaves hasn't felt like much of a retreat from the public eye. And yet when his new TBS show debuts next Monday (and his online "Show Zero" streams tonight at 11), it will have been more than nine months since the end of Coco's 146-episode stint as host of the Tonight Show. No wonder, then, that Vulture found O'Brien giddy with anticipation when we met up with him at his office in Burbank last week, the day after taping his first test show: "It had a nice, smooth feeling," O'Brien said. "Just doing one, and then finishing up and having a meeting afterwards and wiping the makeup off — it had this [feeling of], 'Oh, okay: This is what I like to do'.” What was supposed to be a half-hour interview turned into a wide-ranging, 70-minute conversation, in which we touched on his tumultuous past year and why he's not interested in revenge, and he looked forward to his new TBS show and what it will and won't have. And he made one thing clear: Though his Tonight debacle earned him a group of fervid Team Coco followers who thought he was wronged, his new show won't be about a cause, it'll be about being silly. Says O'Brien, "I’m a really strong believer that comedy should have no meaning."
You’ve always been someone whose shtick, as well as part of your actual persona, is someone who’s self-deprecatory. You're constantly mocking yourself, like, “What the hell am I doing here?”
And then it came true at NBC. But, now you have turned into a bit of a folk hero.
I am someone who wants to be recognized for things I do that are funny. That’s what I primarily want. I like to try and make people laugh. So there’s a lot in the last year that I didn’t plan, that I couldn’t have made up if I wanted to. And I certainly think any comedian who’s worth their salt should be very suspicious of praise outside of being funny. I’m mostly trying to just get back to the business of doing a show and hitting some times and missing some times. The hoopla of the last ten months — I’m anxious to have that phase be over, and just have people say, "I saw him last night and this thing really made me laugh." That’s what I’m interested in. When you say, it’s “a folk hero status” or something like that, I think, Yeah, I’d really just like to be a comedian who’s out there every night, trying. I think that’s the core of why anyone would ever be interested in me. Yeah, I like to believe that I stand for some things, here and there. But I don’t think that should be — that’s not really what I’m interested in getting across, you know?
You're not trying to be a movement comedian, a Jon Stewart.
Anyone who is sticking around with me because they think it’s a social movement will be gone pretty quickly if they don’t like the comedy. If you really want to last, it’s really all about whether you’re making people laugh or not. And, you know, Jon and Stephen do political humor, but they’re also funny. They’re good. And that’s why they’re around. They’re not around just because, you know, they’re striking a political tone — because a lot of people do that. They happen to be very funny, talented guys and I think that is what I always believe I’m going to live or die on. I don’t want to necessarily represent anything.
It’s very important to me that my comedy doesn’t mean anything. And I really mean that. It’s just — it either makes you laugh or it doesn’t. I’m a really strong believer that comedy should have no meaning. And that’s probably upsetting to some people. But it should just make you laugh. And if it doesn’t, I apologize and I’ll try again tomorrow night. That’s where I’m coming from. And so, what happened, happened. A lot of people seemed to react positively to how I behaved. Great. That’s fine. But let's move on to the business of doing a show.
Until this test show, you had been on your longest hiatus since starting Late Night in 1993, right? Your wife, in the recent Rolling Stone interview, says you were so miserable after the tour ended, but I would have thought your low point would have been right after the Tonight Show ended.
There was a real adrenaline rush after the whole situation with NBC. It was so intense ... I went right from that into launching Twitter into announcing the tour, into, “We gotta figure out the tour.” We sold it out before we even knew what it was, to be quite honest with you, though I had vague ideas. And then getting it up and going and then launching it and then doing it. [It] was physically and emotionally one of the more intense experiences I’ve had in my life, all in a good way. But when the tour was over — there's a picture of me on the cover of the spoken word Jack White album [he gestures to it, hanging in his office]. I mean: I’m skeletal. I just lost [weight], just from the energy I was burning every night.
So then, when that was all over, my wife and kids and I have a little house in Connecticut and we went back there. And it was like a diver who surfaces too fast. I went from 300 feet below the surface, and I just shot up. Suddenly, overnight, I went from doing this big farewell night in Atlanta and then flying home ... to a house on a hill. And there were butterflies and birds tweeting.
My wife said ... that my physical body showed up, but I didn’t show up for another two days. I remember I took my kids and my wife to get ice cream, and I was just sitting there licking an ice cream cone in Woodbury, Connecticut — and I was just stunned. So that was a hard time because there was a lot to do with this show, but it hadn’t started up yet. I remember coming over here at Warner Bros., and just looking at this giant empty box and feeling like ... it wasn’t gelling fast enough.
I talked to Andy Richter a couple of weeks ago. We talked briefly about you and how you’re doing. He said, “Well, you know, Conan, for a talk-show host he’s a pretty normal guy. But he’s still a talk-show host. He’s still a little crazy.”
Yeah ... The interesting thing about this kind of a job is that it draws you in again and again and again to see if you can make something really good when the odds are against you ... There's a little bit of an addictive quality to it ... I mean, it’s very interesting to me — I was given every reason in the world to take the year off or something in January. I mean, [I'd] been given a legitimate reason to go and have a mini-nervous-breakdown, and sit in a chair for at least a year and have some tapioca and then come up with a new plan. And I all I could think of was, I’ve got to get out and do a 32-city tour. That was very telling to me.
So Andy was right?
Yes, if you want to know, yes: I’m ill. There’s something wrong with me. [Laughs.]
You talk about needing to get out there and work. Is part of that, “I’m gonna show those guys at NBC”? I mean, as much as you want to take the high road ...
It’s very human to feel that way. It’s very human to feel, “I’m gonna show those guys.” The problem is, it’s not a very healthy motivation because, who are “those guys”? They’re constantly changing. If I’m looking for satisfaction in some way from this group of people that made this decision for whatever reasons or backing this decision or whatever happened, it’s gonna be a hollow feeling. At the end of the day, it’s human to have a little bit of that motivation. But my biggest motivation is, I think I have something to offer, and I like the work. I really do like the work and putting this show together. I mean, I questioned very seriously when this all happened ten months ago or whatever, “What do I have left in me? Do I have more to say? Do I have more to do?” And the answer came back to me pretty quickly that, yeah, I really like doing this.
We’ve been coming up with a lot of stuff because we’re in a new context. We’re on TBS and ... there’s a feeling of this challenge that I’m really up for and that I’m excited about. That’s the big motivator, much more so than, “I’m gonna show X or Y or this person or that person.” Because I don’t even know where they’ll be in a year or two. The biggest waste of my time right now would be to try and change some executive's mind about me. Because my guess is, they moved on.
Let's go back for a second. When you found out NBC was gonna do what they were gonna do, was there was a part of you that thought, "They're going to turn me into the guy who screwed up the Tonight Show"? Regardless of whether that’s true or not, was there a moment when you thought that's how it would be spun?
Of course. You know, 65,000 thoughts occurred to me when all of this went down. Many of them negative. And yeah, you can’t see the forest for the trees at that moment. If you go back to, whatever it was, mid-January or whatever, I didn’t know how anything would turn out. I didn’t know if I would get another job. I didn’t know where that job would be. Everything I did, I had to do just out of feeling that this was the right thing to do at this moment, having no idea how it’s going to play out.
And then after that, even though I ended it the way I wanted to end — not when I wanted it to end, but I felt like, “Okay, I’ve acquitted myself well in that situation” — I had no idea, in February, March into April, I [still] didn’t know if I [was] going to work in television again. I thought there'd be possibilities out there. But I had a lot of anxiety and a lot of ... I’m still processing what the hell happened. I mean, there’ll be books written about this. This was a very complicated pileup on a highway, and we need the experts, you know, to make a computer-generated image of what exactly happened here. I’m still going to be puzzling this one out when I’m 75 years old. I hope I won’t be spending a lot of time on it, but — there’s a lot of head-scratching elements to this, and there’s a lot of emotions. You do your best to move on, and try and say, “Here’s what motivates me.”
It really motivates me when someone says, "I saw that thing you did last night, it made me laugh." I don’t care if it’s a wino in an alley who says it to me. I don’t care if it’s someone in the supermarket. I don’t care if it’s a teacher at my kid’s school. When someone says, “I saw you do this thing online," or "I saw you do it on your show," or "I saw it on viral," or "It really made me laugh" — that’s why I do this.
This is probably a little cheesy, a little Barbara Walters, but: Were there tears?
Just smog-induced. I mean, basically, yeah it was ... I had every range of emotion that I think everybody goes through when they have a job they like and it goes away and they didn’t see it coming. It was a swirly cone. There was a swirly cone of nine different flavors and there was a swirly cone of emotions and I had them all but I think, you know, whatever. Your strength is your weakness. I really believe that’s true, and my strength and my weakness is that: I keep going. I’m a bit of an Energizer bunny. I just keep going and trying. That can be probably annoying and hard to be around sometimes. But that’s what kept me going this last ten months.
Were there positive elements of the whole thing?
The last ten months has been an incredibly creative period for me — between doing all this stuff online with Twitter and Facebook and making these little videos, and then the tour, and then the putting this show together and trying to figure out what does a late-night show look like now: I’ve had a lot of fun. Which is fascinating. I think there’s an image of maybe me moping around in a tattered wedding dress [laughs], distraught over my marriage to the Tonight Show blowing up. And it’s like, well, you know, there has been some despair and anxiety and anger and all those kinds of emotions. But then there’s been all this creativity and so I think, Okay, that’s interesting. Maybe we can do something with this.
What have you discovered over the last few months about what this new show can be and how it’s evolved? Is there going to be more music, like there was on the tour, when you played many numbers with the band?
What you have to remember [about the tour] is the music was really, in that moment, a useful arrow to have in my quiver. It was a useful tool and it was also, in that space, it was a joyous thing. I’ve had many people come up to me and say, “This is what your new show should be!” And I think, “Well, I look like a jackass. It doesn’t work on television to come out every night because, as musicians go, I’m a good comedian.” There’s nothing like playing with Jimmy Vivino and those guys every night to be intimately acquainted with the fact that I’m not really a musician. I’m someone who loves music, and enjoys it, and I can channel it to kind of be a comedic performer. But I don’t take it seriously. No one else should take it seriously, certainly, and I don’t think they do.
Will I play more music on the show? Yeah, probably here and there. But TV is famously, it’s ... I don’t know if it’s a cool medium, because I think a lot’s happened in television since that statement was made, that TV is a cool medium. Who said that?
Was it Marshall McLuhan? Yeah, Marshall McLuhan said TV is a cool medium. And I always thought, “If television is a cool medium, I’m fucked.” My point being that the music is not something you can do on the television every night. Really, these shows at their best are about small moments that become big, you know. All my favorite moments in late night, it’s about the silly, it’s about the random, it’s about the thing you find. It can’t be high opera every night, the medium just doesn’t sustain it.
I think the thing about this show that will be very different is ... it should be really loose. I really do think that at this point, after everything I’ve been through in the past ten months, my instinct is to be probably bolder and looser, and just go for it. Whatever that means. Because you do have a little bit of a feeling — I doubt there’s a show after this one, unless it’s on National Geographic. So we might as well. And I’m at my best when I forget myself. When I forget myself, and just get off on some crazy tangent or get going with the guest or with Andy. Or there’s some piece that when we were making it I thought, This is dreadful, but then it just turns into something.
That’s what these shows are all about. And I believe that what I need to do with this TBS show, and what we’ve tried to do in the studio, is create an environment where anything can happen. Where there's almost a feeling of ingrained irresponsibility.
Closer to Late Night than the Tonight Show, right? And maybe early Late Night?
Early, early Late Night is me trying to do a good job and learn my job. But then, you get like two years in, and you see a guy who’s just out there all the time doing a volume business, and on very late at night, and just trying all kinds of stuff. And I think that was the godsend of that job: I got to survive long enough to just really let my freak flag fly.
One of the things that’s been really fun with the TBS promos was just the left-brain thinking. They said we might be able to do something on film that we could show in movie theaters. And I said that I would really love to drive a 1969 Dodge Dart off a cliff. And they said okay. I’m not used to people saying "okay" when I say things like that. [At NBC it was,] “Oh, it’s too much money, you can’t do it, let’s see, later on.” And so that was really fun — to beat the shit out of a stuntman and drive a car full of popcorn and everything off a cliff. It was really fun. Having a blimp. There’s just all kind of things that I want to try, there’s just all these kind of things that we want to do.
Of course, you're on a cable budget now. And you own the show, so it's sort of your own money.
Yes, yes. If I look at the way things were on Late Night in 1995 and '96, there were times that we would write sketches with eight actors and then cut them. There was a different mind-set back then. Those days were starting to disappear [at NBC], where you had to be more budget-mindful. But yeah, this is a business we have to figure out. There are advantages and disadvantages, but mostly creative advantages. We have a smaller budget, but I think that can force us to be creative in the way Twitter has forced me to be funny in a different way.
Or even the viral videos that you’ve made.
Yeah. Restrictions are funny. Limitations are funny. And we have to think not just twice but thrice [laughs] — which nobody says anymore — we have to think thrice before we spend $2,500 on a sketch.
Will you talk a lot about the Troubles, the NBC period? Is it going to be a punchline for you a lot?
I think it’ll be where it’s appropriate. But I think mostly my interest is moving forward. Obviously, there’s going to be moments where it makes sense, like one of Johnny’s divorces, you know. If it comes up in the right context in the room and people start laughing, you deal with it. But I want to make new stuff, I want to make new comedy, I want to make new things. This is a new phase of my career that I hope lasts a long time, and I hope is very creative, so I don’t want to refer back. We’ve already had ideas [in the writers room] that referred back to what was going on, and we grew bored of them really quickly. It was, eh, who cares?
On the other hand, you might want to bring some of your characters and bits from the past with you, right?
I don’t know. To be brutally honest with you, I don’t know. I don’t know exactly what characters we could try and use from the past. I don’t imagine it’s going to be a big issue. First of all, I don’t see Brian Williams having any need for the Masturbating Bear. But I’m not looking to be provocative in that way. I’m looking mostly to just doing my own show and letting those people do their show. If we had a great idea that involved some idea from the past, we’d try to figure it out.
You're something of a later convert to the wonders of the Internet. Your shows obviously always had a presence, but how did you get personally so into it? Was it your staffer Aaron Bleyaert? Is he your Internet guru?
He was the one. Twitter obviously was my introduction to some of this, and basically I just approached it as a comedy writer, not as “Hey, I just ate some awesome lettuce. They had great oranges at Whole Foods today!” I got into it [thinking], "What would be a funny thing to say?" and you go and you do it every day. It’s just learning a discipline. And to me it’s been interesting as a comedy-writing tool, mostly. And I love that they can’t see you. They know what I look like, and they can probably imagine my face sometimes, but these things just come through the ether, which is nice. Sort of like these little fortune-cookie kind of jokes or statements.
A big wake-up call for me was [after leaving NBC] when we went to Google and I gave this interview, and it kind of blew up. It went everywhere, and I had so many people saying, “I watched you for 52 minutes on Google.” All these people watched the entire thing and it struck me that, wait a minute, what’s the difference between having a television show and talking to a computer? Millions of people saw it, not just in the United States but all around the world. And it’s not edited, it’s not processed. They just see me talking to 25-year-old Google employees, and being spontaneously silly and joking around with them and being in the moment. And it’s this moment that went out there. Not that I didn’t know it, but it was my first real acquaintance with what you can make — things that are instantly seen by so many people, and played and replayed and zapped around ... If you do something worthwhile, it can really reach people.
Is this sort of interactivity going to be part of this new show?
There’s no going back. I’m trying to take everything that I’ve picked up or learned over the last ten months and apply it to this new show. Now, we’ll err, we’ll make mistakes, we’ll hit dead ends. But I don’t want to give up any ground or any of the cool things that we discovered. I'd like to fold all that into the show and see what it becomes. I don’t know what it’s going to become. I like this idea of people having a dialogue with me about the show, and maybe that informed where the show goes.
Have you talked to any of the other hosts post-NBC?
The only hosts I’ve really been in contact with were Colbert and Stewart, when they came and did my show at Radio City and we talked backstage beforehand. I think I saw Colbert at the Emmys. I was in a town car or something, and he was in a golf cart, and I rolled my window down and manically laughed at him as I passed him. I haven’t really talked to anybody else since everything went down. In this business, you just worry about your next show. This business, this job, breeds narcissism and everyone pretty much just worries about their own thing.
So no pep talk from Dave?
No. Nor would I expect there to be. He’s got things to do. [Laughs.] He doesn’t have to worry about me.
And I guess I have to bring this up, but: Leno?
Do you think you’ll ever get to a point where there’ll be any discussion with him? Or are you just beyond it now?
Uhhhhh ... I don’t think there’s much to say. I don’t think we have much to talk about, so ... Life is short, you know. And like I say, I don’t want to waste any time. I don’t think anyone should waste much time dwelling on it.
You’re now launching your third show. In terms of stress level, rate them for me. The process of getting them off the ground.
It’s actually chronological. Launch of Late Night, I mean, think about it: I was replacing David Letterman with no real television experience, from complete obscurity. As Katie Couric said at the time, “What if you just end up a Trivial Pursuit question?” I’m an ambitious person who really cared about comedy and didn’t want to end up as the joke answer. That is when I was most in the danger, that two to three years from '93 to '96. And then the Tonight Show was the next level of stress. And then this one is the least.
This one’s relatively easy.
Well, it’s not. No, it’s not that it’s easy I just have made a decision to enjoy the process more. I’ve just made a decision to — let’s try things. I can be nitpicky. I think as time went on at Late Night and the Tonight Show, I was on top of everything all the time, in a very Type-A way. And sometimes you realize, “I can get in the way.” That can be a deterrent. When I’m just being silly and loose with the writers, they come up with funnier stuff [and] I come up with funnier stuff.
There’s an overwhelming sense I have right now that, whatever just happened to me — and I don’t completely understand what it was; I’m not sure I’ll ever completely understand it — but there’s a feeling, like what you hear people in Alcoholics Anonymous say, that it’s all bigger than me. Go with it. This has led me here.
Is that sense of “it is what it is” you described earlier going to apply to ratings? Are you going to be closely watching them, like at the network? And how do you get your head around the idea that your audience could be a lot smaller?
I don’t even know what to expect: We’re on TBS, we’re at eleven. To me job No. 1 is: make something that’s worth people talking about the next day. And if you don’t get it the first night, try again the second night. And keep trying, and keep trying until you come up with new things, and get to that place where I know we’re doing something that’s worthy of people’s time. I’ve always had that Field of Dreams philosophy: If you build it, they will come. And if we can do that, I think we’ll survive. I don’t know what to expect but my goal is not to try and please everybody all the time. That’s not something that gets you anywhere.
Will Ferrell was there for you at the beginning and end of the Tonight Show, but he's not on your first week of shows now. And he does have a movie out.
We're feuding right now. Unhappy with him. He has to pay the price. Will knows what he did. He has to pay for it. [Conan's longtime executive producer, Jeff Ross, had entered the room, and points out that Ferrell will be in Europe when the show launches.] Yeah, there's that. But Will remains one of my favorite people of all time, and he’ll be part of the show. We also don’t all want it to be about the first week: “Conan’s gonna cure cancer on the Wednesday of the first week!” We want to hold the cancer curing till the second week.
Ross: You gotta leave everybody wanting, wondering about something. You can’t tell them everything.
Conan: That’s one of the problems with the web. Bleyeart comes in here every day saying, “Can we show the set?” Okay, okay. “Can we show the graphics?” Oh, all right. “Hey, is it okay if we show all the test shows plus ” — no! [Laughs.] If the web was around at the time of Houdini, Houdini would be forced to do a live-stream explanation of how all his tricks work before he ever took the stage.
After NBC ended, did you think of bringing the show back to New York?
Conan: You know what, I moved my kids and my wife out here ...
Ross: And 60 other people.
Conan: And 60 other people. It was a huge massive undertaking. And there’s one thing I've found, because I read a lot of history: All serial killers and presidential assassins have one thing in common: They moved a lot as children. I looked at my kids and I thought, We just got them here. We went through this big traumatic thing when we moved them. They started schools and they seem to be putting down roots. To then say, "Okay, we’re going back to maybe do the show on Staten Island if anybody will have me." I love it there, but ...
You're gonna be 50 soon. Is it too soon, too morbid to start thinking about legacy and all that?
I just don’t want to be buried out here. I’ve made that clear. The other day, to do a remote, I was in a van with a bunch of people, and we were in the Valley. We drove past some sun-baked graveyard and I just turned to the people in the van and I said, “I haven’t discussed this with anyone, but it just occurred to me now that I don’t want to be buried out here.” And everyone in the van was like, “Okay,” and I was like, “No, no, no. Seriously, seriously: Some of you will survive me, probably most of you. I don’t want to be buried out here.” I like it out here. But I don’t want to be buried out here.