I went to the set of Conan ready to do a story on O’Brien answering critics of his new TBS talk show. He didn’t actually have any critical responses, and this was the Television Critics Association he was talking to! Instead, he was as gracious as could be, so I revise my agenda to be the top 15 things O’Brien is thankful for.
15. Conan thanks his fans for the love he felt on tour:
Conan O’Brien: I would like to try and recapture some of that feeling that I had on the tour which was I’m right there with the crowd. There’s no barrier between me and the audience. We’re in nice and tight. I want it to be an intimate environment and I want to create a good lab for us to screw around and try things. We actually increased the rake too so it would feel a little more theatrical. I think all those objectives were met. We weren’t actually thinking about what other sets look like. We just decided what we wanted to do to continue that feeling from the tour.
14. Conan is thankful that TBS gave him an opportunity:
Conan O’Brien: TBS reached over the side and pulled us into this boat and said, “We like you, we like what you do, we want you to bring your people, we want you to do it your way and we’re grateful to have you.” That is something that I’ll be eternally grateful for. We’re just happy to be here.
13. Conan is thankful for the freedom to do whatever he thinks is funny:
Conan O’Brien: The people at TBS have made it very clear that we want to do what you think is funny and what you enjoy doing and I think that’s led to a feeling here anyway of experimentation and silliness. The Christmas decorations, wearing a legging which I apologize for, that’s nobody’ screensaver. Even the first show, playing with Jack White, there are a bunch of things I wouldn’t have conceived of doing a year ago because I hadn’t been through this process. There’s a lot of if it feels like it might be funny and if it feels like its making us laugh at rehearsal, let’s try it and see what happens.
12. Conan is thankful for his reputation and relationships in Hollywood:
Conan O’Brien: I think if we were a startup show on TBS there’d be some challenges but the fact that we’ve been part of this community for 17 years and I’ve come up with a lot of people who are friends of mine, I think that changes the dynamic too. There are a lot of people, whether it’s an Adam Sandler or a Will Ferrell or a Tom Hanks, there are people that have just one way or another coming on one of my shows, which is funny to say because there’ve been three now, and to them they’re not consulting other shows to find out what the order is or what they’re supposed to do. What’s nice is I think personal relationships have played a role too.
11. Conan is thankful for losing The Tonight Show!
Conan O’Brien: There’s nothing like walking away from The Tonight Show to make you really appreciate getting to be on the air and getting to do a show. So I think some of that spirit’s coming through. The dynamic here is very different. The people I’m working for, the feeling here is a very different feeling. I think that contributes to it a lot too. Yeah, that’s the biggest comment I get, anywhere I go. People say, “You look like you’re having a blast.” I’ve always known if I am having a fun time in this little box on the show, it will come through, it will permeate.
10. Conan is thankful that young people love him:
Conan O’Brien: I auditioned for the Late Night show when I was 29. That was 17, almost 18 years ago. I’m in my mid-60s now [joking] and I had young people watching me then and that has not changed. I always assumed that those people would come along with me. What has happened is I have kept a lot of those people and I have so many young people tell me, or so many people who have kids now and work in a law office say, “You got me through college. I watched you in the eighth grade.” What has not changed is if I go on vacation, if I go out, people in their ‘20s seem to be very excited to see me. They know the show. That has not altered. I don’t know what it is about my personality.
9. Conan is thankful to be having fun on television:
Conan O’Brien: I think at the end of The Tonight Show, my Tonight Show, I said something that really resonated with me and it just came off the top of my head and it seemed to resonate with people, which is I said, “This is really not a big deal because all we’re here to do is have fun on television.” I remember the crowd really responding to it and it resonated with me and I thought it’s like that old saying: it’s the economy, stupid. What I’m here to do I just have fun on television. That is my job and try not to over think it. What’s nice is we’re working in an environment where they’ve said, “We really want you to have fun on television.”
8. Conan is thankful people remember his Tonight Show:
Conan O’Brien: Yeah, I hope they rerun them. Will those ever be seen by anybody? I’m just curious. I have no idea. They probably destroyed them. They’re in a bunker somewhere.
7. Conan is thankful he had some time off:
Conan O’Brien: I won’t lie, I loved being around my kids. I loved being able to sometimes pick up my kids at school and I loved being able to be around more often.
6. Conan is thankful for the inspiration:
Conan O’Brien: It’s funny; there was not a long fallow period. We got right into it which was all right, we don’t know where we’re going to go, but what was most amazing about the last year was things followed naturally one from the other. The last Tonight Show we ended with Free Bird with Will Ferrell and this lineup of great rock musicians. I remember that show ended and I said, “That was fun. I like playing the guitar. I like singing rockabilly music. I’m not allowed to appear on television but what if I went on tour?” It started as a small idea, maybe we’ll just do a couple clubs in L.A. and I’ll wear a fake moustache and we’ll call it The Legally Prohibited Band. That turned into very quickly us realizing there’s a market for this. I think they ran through a computer or something and they said, “Everybody wants to buy a ticket to this.” Even though nobody knew what it was. So the next thing you know, we had sold out the country in a day and it was time to go and do this tour. Then you can see me figuring out what this show is very quickly. So that, the social media explosion, it all happened very quickly after the end of The Tonight Show so there was not a long period of me lying around eating pizza and watching Wheel of Fortune. Actually I’ve had some people say to me, “Isn’t this great that you got to have a year off?” And I don’t remember a year where I’ve worked harder than the last year because this all had to come together very quickly while we were on tour. So we were having meetings about what is this show? We were meeting with TBS so things happened very fast.
5. Conan is thankful for his beard:
Conan O’Brien: I grew a beard because I hate shaving. I stopped shaving after the last Tonight Show. I shaved that morning and then I didn’t shave. I grew a beard because that’s what you do when you go through something. Especially when you’ve been in broadcasting and you need to shave every day, it’s a feeling of liberation, I’m just going to let my beard grow. Everybody does it who loses a job or goes through something traumatic. You do something and I grew a beard. Then I just ended up, we got closer and closer to the show and I remember Jeff [Ross] calling me into his office and saying, “Beard, is it gonna stay? Is it gonna go? What’s gonna happen?” I said I don’t know. The next thing you know, we were taking publicity photos with the beard. The next thing you know we kept the beard and it could go tomorrow. I don’t know. I take this thing a day at a time. It might just fall off because of lack of testosterone. Yeah, I completely reject the notion that I’m in any way a sex symbol and I think my fans will as well.
4. Conan is thankful the TV industry is getting smaller:
Conan O’Brien: Someone said one of the most interesting things about the last year is going through this philosophical shift which I think is happening all across the media, which is the old idea was you pitch a giant tent and try to get as many people into it as possible. There’s this new idea which is you try and obviously get a lot of people to see you, but you really try and deepen the connection you have with those people watching to make it more meaningful. I think what we’ve been through in the last year, we have fans that have been through something and arrived with us and really feel invested..
3. Conan is thankful the fans are participating:
Conan O’Brien: What we’ve been doing on the show a lot which is a new thing for us is taking art that’s been sent it. We have very creative fans and they send in beautiful artwork and we make it the bumper on the show and we put their e-mail tag, their hash tag or something on the artwork and we put it up on the show. So it’s a dialogue between people who are watching the show, who are fans, who are making things. Then they’re contributing to the show and we create something.
2. Conan is thankful for spontaneity:
Conan O’Brien: Halfway through the tour I was sort of just prowling up and down the stage and talking and finding things much more in the moment. I’ve always liked that and I think it really came out in the interviews over the years on the Late Night show. But I thought this is an opportunity. Yes, we want to have our ducks in a row on the writing side before we go on the air, but I’m much more willing now to throw everything out the window if I see an opportunity in a moment that I like. I’ll completely drop, I’ll skip over jokes, I’ll say forget jokes, I’ll cut things just before we go on the air and say let’s just go with it. So I think there’s a feeling that came out of the tour probably of just confidence in the moment and confidence in I’ve been here doing this a long time. My goal is not to do this forever. I just want to do it really well, as well as I can possibly do it for a period of time until I have nothing left to say and then go away. I think that’s a feeling that came from the tour to a certain degree which is just people are here, this is a moment, it’s visceral and be in this moment and play with it. I think we brought that into the show.
1. Conan is thankful he got to work at NBC:
Conan O’Brien: I was with that company for a long time and had a lot of amazing experiences with them and felt a part of that family. I think it’s still very hard for me sometimes, it meant a lot to me to be part of NBC. It’s like when they take off a limb and you still feel like you have that limb. There are times where I sort of mourn the loss of that company meant a lot to me. There’s a whole body of work I did that I feel a little detached from. 17 years of work that I’m really proud of, Late Night and The Tonight Show. Someone else has it now and I no longer see those people, and yeah, some of them I never need to see again but still it’s very strange to feel like I’ve left that world and will not go to that world again. I think sometimes that just on a human level feels strange to me and I feel somewhat sad. As great as things have worked out for me, I think that’s something I regret.
Photo credit: Meghan Sinclair/ Team Coco