The new host of the late-night staple talks about his brand new gig on a new time
Conan O'Brien fans will be able to enjoy his unique brand of late-night entertainment when O'Brien starts his new venture, The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, which premieres on Monday, June 1 at 11:35 PM ET on NBC. After 16 years of hosting Late Night with Conan O'Brien, O'Brien takes over for Jay Leno in the legendary late-night show. O'Brien recently held a conference call discussing his new show, and here's what he had to say.
Conan, when Jay Leno really started to break away in the ratings was when he made the opening comedy portions longer and longer, until it was way longer than any of the other shows. What are you going to do when you start out here? Are you expecting to have expanded comedy at the beginning? And - and will it be more film scenes compared to the - to monologue? Or how - how do you think that will go?
Conan O'Brien: You know it's interesting, because I think what I'll probably - you know, late night television in general - each show has evolved differently over time. My late night show, which the one I just wrapped up in February had - we usually prided our self on having a lot of comedy - a lot of produced comedy. So, I will probably try and continue that tradition. That's just my - I - I think that's what I'm comfortable with. That's what I come from - the comedy world. And so I - my imagine that I will continue to try and have, you know, go probably a little heavy on the produced comedy. And that's, you know, that's something that I feel probably is one of my strong suits. So we'd probably continue to do that. And we, you know, Act 1, I think that will vary in length. I think some nights the Act 1 - and as it did on the last show. Some nights the Act 1 would be, you know, could be 12 minutes. Sometimes it could be 18 minutes. So it really depends on what you have that night. I don't want to try and do it to any certain length, because I just want to do every night what feels right, given, you know, the type of comedy have that evening ready to go.
And because of the lead time you've been able to already shoot some of these produced comedies?
Conan O'Brien: Yeah we shot some pieces. What's amazing is you can only do so much in a vacuum. So we've shot some pieces, but, you know, what happens is those things, you know, my experience has been these shows are just - it's - I call it feeding the dragon. You just got - every night you've got a - you've got to come up with fresh material. And when you're doing five hours a week, and you try and go comedy heavy, you can consume things really quickly. So, we're going to try and, you know, not use up everything that we've shot right away. Do you know what I mean?
Can you talk about being Jay Leno's final guest? And how has the transition gone?
Conan O'Brien: It's gone very well. You know, I know that - look, there's no denying that the media - and for good reason, they like conflict. It's a better story. But one of the things that's been really nice is that Jay and I have always - I mean, really going back to 1993 when I got started. We've always personally gotten along really well. And I just saw Jay - we did this up front show in New York. And, you know, we hung out in the theatre - in the Town Hall Theatre at rehearsal for a while, and just trading stories about guests and, you know, jokes and things like that. We've always gotten along really well. And he's been very kind to me about this whole transition. And I think one of the nice things that's really helped is Jay staying with the network and going to 10 o'clock has made the thing - made the transition particularly easy for both of us. Because he's happy, I'm happy. And, you know, that's actually been kind of a Godsend. You know, so, being - when he asked me to be his last guest, obviously I was very honored to do it. And if nothing else, it gets me on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien 48 hours earlier than I normally would have been. It was nice of him to give me a little bit of a head start.
Do have anything - you know, anything special planned that night - Friday night?
Conan O'Brien: I don't. You know, my attitude is it's Jay's night. I mean this is his last Tonight Show, and he's hosted that show - he's done a terrific job with that show. And he has taken such good care of that franchise, and this is his last night with that program. And so, I'm there as a guest to Jay, but I - I'm, you know, I feel like I'm going to have plenty of opportunities to make a jackass of myself in that hour. And I really do feel like I'm there, and you know, we haven't - haven't figured out exactly yet what we're going to be talking about, but it's Jay's night. So, I don't have any illusions about it being my night.
So I guess is it kind of Bay State boys stick together and help each other out? Is - that sounds kind of like what you've been saying about having him at 10 o'clock?
Conan O'Brien: Yeah, I - I kind of feel like there's, if nothing else, we have that, you know. There are a lot of things about Jay and I that are different. You know, he has, you know, like a 220 car collection. And I have my Ford Taurus. That aside, you know, there's, you know, it is - we do both come from - there - says something about Massachusetts that no one's quite figure out why so many people from Massachusetts go into comedy. And I don't know if it's that, you know, growing up with the perceptual disappointment of the Boston Red Sox, or if it's that seven month winter. But it's something - or, you know, (Osorio Drive). There's something about growing up in that area that pushes you to try - and very hard, to find what's humorous in life. You know? So, we do have that in common.
Hey I wanted to know how much, if anything, you're going to be bringing with you from your old show to The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien?
Conan O'Brien: You know, there are certain bits that we did on the show over the years at The Late Night Show which I would look at. And even as I would do them on The Late Night Show, I used to think to myself, this bit could work at 11:30. This bit could work at, you know, this bit could work at 8 o'clock at night. So, there's certain things that we did over - over the years, especially some things that we developed in the last couple years of the late night show that felt - for example, this thing that we do on - on The Late Night Show when - when NBC merged with Telemundo. I started saying I want to reach out to our Spanish speaking audience. And so I started doing a - a soap opera that was completely in Spanish called (Nochas Depcion) from Conan O'Brien, and, it was just a really fun silly bit. And I remembered thinking this was very, you know, I could have probably as a child sold this bit to Johnny Carson. It's just a fun sort of old school Tonight Show piece. So that's a piece that I'd be anxious to try out on this show. And then there are things like Year 2000, which is basically a good way to deliver jokes. So, there's a number of pieces like that. But one of the things I've been stressing with my writers since the beginning is we're moving from one playground to another playground for the first time in 16 years. And we don't want to - there, you know, being on the Universal lot is such a gift, and being in this strange culture. And, you know, people laugh when they just think of me being in Los Angeles, that it's an opportunity here to think of new ideas. You know, it would be a shame to just dust off the Late Night Show and move it to 11:30. It doesn't feel right to do that. So I think we're - we're really hoping to come up with new things as well. So I - I'd like to keep the best of The Late Night Show - a couple of pieces here and there that really work for us. And I see no reason why, and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog can't file reports for us, and we, you know, and - and then I think there are - this is really an opportunity to do something new. I think people would be disappointed if I just - if I - if I didn't re-invent myself to some degree.
Well one of the more popular segments that - that I've always enjoyed is the - is the segment with Jim Gaffigan and the Pale Force.
Conan O'Brien: Yes. Yeah.
Is that one of the things you're talking about?
Conan O'Brien: Yeah. That would be something I'd love to keep doing. Jim Gaffigan's a funny guy and - and - and one of the things I always loved about that Pale Force is that I love the conceit that I didn't know what was going on. You know, I really loved that. That Jim would come on and say I've got a cartoon, and I'd be all excited. And am I heroic in this one? Yes. Yes. You'll be quite pleased. And of course I'd always be disappointed with how I was portrayed. And, you know, things like that are just - they're really not time slot specific. That's a funny. You know, I - I really want to do anything that I think is funny. And to me that's the most important thing. So if something - a piece like Pale Force I think would work really well at 11:30.
Any plans at this point to - to bring it back anytime soon? Or is it just one of the ideas that's being kicked around?
Conan O'Brien: It's one of those things that's out there. It's not, you know, Jim has to make some more of them. But, you know, and that hasn't been - but like I say, we've got, you know, we have five hours a week to do, that I'm not worried about, you know. And now what's nice is I'm living in the same state as Jim. So, I can - I can - I can force him to do it much more easily. I can send a van over to his house and make him do it.
I just wanted to know what advice have you been given by Jay? I know you've already been kind of been doing the talk - talk show host thing for a while. But, have you been given any well wishes or advice from Jay or other late night hosts?
Conan O'Brien: You know, it's funny. Most people and - and Jay included have kind of just told me it's the - it's actually the oldest advice that I've ever had. I got it - Johnny Carson years ago when I first met him told me just be yourself. And that that's really - if this is going to work at all, that's the only way it can work. That was back in 1993 he told me that. And that's basically, you know, that's basically all anyone who knows anything about these shows could tell you is you got to do it your way. And so, Jay's been very nice about it. He hasn't, you know, called me up and given me specific advice. And he may. You know, once I get on the air. You know, he's the kind of person who I'm sure would call me up and say I just noticed something you're doing in this part of the show. And it might be a problem for you if, you know - I could see him doing that. But so far, just, all he's basically implied is I should just be myself. You know, because that's really - these shows are such an extension of the host that... and what I really don't want to do is - I think the reason Jay's show worked so well is that he did it his way. And Johnny Carson did it his way, which was quite different from Jack Paar who did it his way, which was really different from Steve Allen who did it his way. The - the - I think the golden rule with The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien is a host has to put his stamp on it. That's the only way it's going to work.
So when we talked to Jay last week, one of the things he kept saying was how happy he was to be going out on top. And obviously The Tonight Show's been dominating the ratings for years. So what sort of is the balance in your mind between the pressure to be number one and - and sort of - just the excitement to have this great opportunity?
Conan O'Brien: You know, I think the - the truth is I don't know, you know, in my career for example, my whole experience at late night, I never once said I'm going to do X because that's going to be a huge rating. Do you know what I mean? I always did the thing that I thought would be funny, and then good ratings seem to come from that. So, foremost in my mind is really try very hard every night to give people a funny show, think of new ideas. And try and establish that The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien with Conan O'Brien, you know, that - that the tradition at least continues that well, you have to tune in and check out what's happening on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, because they did something last night that was really funny, and I don't want to miss something. And my hope is that if I do that, that the ratings will follow. That's my - that's my hope. I don't know how to do it the other way. Which is I don't know how to say you know what's going to really do well with women, you know, 35 to 49 - that's as if I do a sewing segment. You know? I mean, - or something like that. I - I think if you try and do it the other way you just lose yourself.
Now with you and Jay, with Jimmy Fallon and with Carson, how do the four of you compliment each other? Or does it sort of have to be adversarial? I mean?
Conan O'Brien: I kind of believe it's sort - it's sort of everyone's just got to just, you know, the only way I've ever been able to do comedy is to put my blinders on and - and follow my own instincts. And - and that's the only way I know how to do it. And so, I really believe Jay's got to do his show, I've got to do my show, Jimmy's got to do it his way, Carson's got to do it his way. There's just - there's, you know, to be honest with you. I don't even know if we compliment each other. You know? There's no - it's not like synchronized swimming. Where the - the five of us are creating this beautiful (tab low) which looks gorgeous when viewed from - from above. I'm not sure that's the case. But, you know, everyone's got to follow their own - their own gut on how to do their show. And, you know, I'm hoping that good things come from that.
And any other - any other plans for the first week? We've got some example of your guests.
Conan O'Brien: Yeah. We have, you know, we have Will Ferrell and Pearl Jam and Tom Hanks and Green Day and Julie Lee Dreyfus and Cheryl Crow and Gwyneth Paltrow and John Mayer and Ryan Seacrest. You know, just like a - it's a fun week. And I'd like it just to, you know, I - I always - I have rule, which is don't over think this. My job is to - my most - the most important job is to think of funny things to do with my writers, and enjoy this. Because what I've noticed is that when I'm really enjoying myself - being silly or having fun with these people, it seems to be good - I think it's good television when I'm enjoying myself. It seems to work. If I'm happy, it tends to look good on television. So that's my goal with this is I know it's The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien and it's a big responsibility, but man it would be a shame not to enjoy it.
I was reading a New York Times article that you were saying that you're hoping to appeal to middle America. That's the hardest group to crack for you.
Conan O'Brien: You know it's funny. It's kind of I try not to put that in the forefront of my brain. I try and, you know, people say a lot you've got to appeal to middle America. And I say well, you know, I don't think there's anything - I think at my - my best stuff that I've done over the years, and me at my best is just funny. And should I - I think should - I don't think there's anything hard to get, you know? There's nothing that's too, you know, at the best my show has always just been silly. And I think silly should work for all kinds of people. Do you know what I mean? But I don't put that in the front of my brain every night and think how do I appeal to middle America. Because I do think audiences are smart. And they know when you're trying to pander to them. And I don't want to do that.
And will it be harder for you to get guests now that you're the second guy up instead the first?
Conan O'Brien: No. There are so many people out there, and you know, I - I really don't think it's going to be - I think the guest thing has sort of been over-blown. There's so many, I mean, I got terrific guests on The Late Night. And I was, you know, farther down the totem pole than I am now in terms of booking. So, I'm not worried about the guest situation. It's, you know, it - it - to me it's not about who gets a guest first, it's what you do with that guest. And, you know, what you - how my - and my chemistry with them might be different than other people. So, you know, that I don't think is going to be a problem.
I just wondered if - how you think Jay can - will affect your audience and the overall universe of late show audiences? Do you think people will say, okay I've watched at 10:00 I'm good? Or what do you think will happen?
Conan O'Brien: You know, it's a good question. And nobody has the answer. I'll be completely honest with you. You know, I could try and BS you and say, nope I can tell you exactly what's going to happen. It's all going to be fine. I don't know. It's - this move is kind of unprecedented in - in television, you know. But, you know, when - what I keep going back to is that at the end of the day nothing changed for me. Which is I'm hosting it. You know it's June 1, 2009. I'm hosting The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. Don't worry about what anybody else is doing or what time they're at. Just - I have to do my thing, and do it to the best of my ability, and hope that good things come from that. So, you know, as opposed to what this does, you know, to broadcast television in general, I have no idea. I do know that broadcast television network TV is - the whole thing's changing so quickly. I mean you and I have both seen it change in the last couple years before this move. So, you know, I don't know where we're going to be three years from now. The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien might be a pill that you take, you know, that you can get at the drug store. You know? And people swallow it, you know, with a Vodka Tonic and say good monologue Conan and then go to sleep. So, I have no idea where we're going. But it should be kind of exciting to see what happens.
Who are your dream guests? Are any of them on that first week?
Conan O'Brien: I have - well the first week is filled with - has some of my favorite people, which is really nice. Will Farrell has always been a - an amazing guest for me. And we have a good, you know, it's always kind of a happening when he's on the show. Tom Hanks is one of the great talk show guests of all time. I mean, he's, you know, this movie legend who also happens to be a - a great rack on tour and incredibly likeable, and I've known him for years. So having him on is a dream come true for this first week. Gwyneth Paltrow is someone who came on my show. She was the third guest when she first came on I think in 1993. She was in a move with James Caan. I can't even remember the name of the movie. But she was - no one knew who Gwyneth Paltrow was. And here was are all these years later and she's this sort of, you know, she's this great movie actress and style icon. And, you know, it's - so, having her on made a lot of sense. And then Ryan Seacrest and I are lovers, so that, you know...
Right. Right. Heard about it.
Conan O'Brien: ...just makes sense. Yeah. That's around. The Post already had it. I think Page 6 already has that.
It's more Jimmy's problem I think than yours. But - but do you think there's going to reach a saturation point where people are just going to get tired of listening to people talk?
Conan O'Brien: I think at some point my show is going to have to morph into a detective show. I think four weeks in Andy Richter and I will be solving crimes. It's going to be a Murder She Wrote with a slightly younger demo.
On the sketch side, your mind has to be going nuts with ideas. What is - as you come out here to Los Angeles, what have you been thinking about sketches along that lot?
Conan O'Brien: You know, it's - one of the things that's been nice is we weren't sure when we made this transition, you know, it's a whole - this is a whole world unto itself - Universal. And they - it's a big business. And they've got a lot to do. And we didn't know, you know, are they going to let us play with any of these toys? And the happy surprise has been that, you know, everybody from - starting at the top with Ron Mayer and - and - and then Jim Walters who really, you know, runs the Universal lot. They have from day one told us anything you want to play with is yours to play with. And so, you look around and you just see - I mean, this is where they - this is like being in a - in a - one of those McDonald's play lands, you know? There's just all kinds of stuff to - to - to explore and have fun with.
Did something strike you right off the bat yet?
Conan O'Brien: Well first of all, there's a tram. I mean when I stand out - when I walk outside it's funny. And this is something that Teri Hatcher told me, because she works - they make Desperate Housewives on this lot. Teri Hatcher told me there's a great thing here Conan. And whenever you're feeling down about yourself, and you're feeling depressed, she said this is what I do. Sometimes I start to think what have I really achieved? Who, you know, I don't know if I've really - if she gets into a spiral. She steps outside of her trailer and tram goes by. And all the people see her and start screaming and waving and taking pictures. And she feels good about herself again. And I've noticed that that's true. Every now and then I get into a funk as I'm prone to do. And then you step outside your office, and this tram goes by. And so, there is this desire to okay, first thing we got to do is screw with that tram. And - and then it starts from there. You know, there are all these studios here where they're making things, and where they have crazy technology. And you feel like, okay, this is right to go into these places and mess around. And then, you start with that, and then you get outside the lot and you realize Los Angeles is an interesting place, you know? Los Angeles is a place we haven't - we spent 16 years exploring, you know, the area outside Midtown and trying to mine it for things. And now here we are in Los Angeles and it's great to have a fresh start.
You've had the experience, because you have The Late Night Show, put me in that mode of what it is like for the first night? What you - what are you going through on that first night? What happens?
Conan O'Brien: You know, the first night - what's funny about is there is the biggest - and I had this. It's funny. In 19 - I had this feeling in 1993 as well. But, most people thought in 1993 oh my God he's got to be petrified. And what's interesting is that the most overwhelming feeling you have is let's go do this. Because it's the speculative period, it's the - it's the period beforehand that sort of starts to drive you crazy. Do you know what I mean? And these shows - so much of these shows are about just doing them. It's the doing of these shows is actually where you find what the show is. So, we have a lot of ideas. I think we're ready. I think we have some really fun stuff planned. But we're going to realize things about this Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien after we make 15 of them. Do you know what I mean?
Conan O'Brien: And, these shows are sort of - for lack of a better word. They're kind of organic, meaning they - they take on - things happen. Things happen in the news, things happen in the world and these - The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien especially has to react to that. And we'll have - we may have quite a different show a year from now. You know? And I'm anxious to go and find out what that show is by doing it. So, the feeling I have right now is I - I've been telling people I feel like a race horse that was put in the stall five years - in the shoot five years ago, you know. And I'm - I'm kicking at the side like let's - let's go.
So you were just mentioning I guess many questions ago, that they're, you know, one of the differences between you and Jay is that your car collection.
Conan O'Brien: Yeah.
I was wondering as a scholar of humor, how would say that your humor is different than his?
Conan O'Brien: You know, it's funny. There are - yeah I'm sure there are differences. I think I'm, you know, Jay established himself in - in comedy as (prob) - probably one of the best stand ups of all time. So I think Jay himself would admit that his real love is he loves the jokes. And that's probably his first love is the jokes. You know? And I would say I really like the jokes. I love a good joke. But that's - but I probably like the funny - the ideas. You know? That might be the biggest - the difference between us. Do you know what I mean? Is - is, you know, and we came from, you know, I came - I started out, you know, the first - I don't know. The first seven years of my career I sat in rooms and ruminated and thought about what would look funny, you know, as a writer. And - and I think - so I probably come from more the sketch background. And probably trying to think of what visually would look funny. And Jay probably, well, you know, came more from the, you know, what's - what would be good in a stand up monologue. And so, that's probably the places, you know, the biggest difference between us I would think.
I wanted to ask you your opinion on - a lot that's being made about the difference between comedy that works at 11:30 versus 12:30.
Conan O'Brien: Right.
How much of that do you think is really valid? And how much of that isn't?
Oh, you know, I - I - I think it's a valid question. But I do think that sometimes people act like there's a, you know, a tear in the - in the fabric of time and space that separates 11:30 and 12:30. You know what I mean? For example if you look at, you know, David Letterman was on at 12:30 and a number of, you know, and was very successful there. And then he - he came to 11:30 and you look at it, and so many of those things he brought with him. And they work fine. Top 10 list - what, you know. And, you know, he brought - he brought a bunch of, you know, he had re-invented himself as well, but he brought things with him. I think that especially now, that people - people don't watch their episode of Lost when everyone, you know, at the exact time they're supposed to watch it. DVRs have changed everything. The Internet's changed everything. People are watching things out of sequence all the time. People are watching shows, they're getting them of Hulu and watching them on their I Phone. And so, you know, I - I sometimes thing what's the most important thing for The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien? The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien needs to be funny. And I think if The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien is really funny, you can experience it at 11:30 or you can watch it on your computer the next morning while you're eating your oatmeal. And so, I don't - I think sometimes, especially in 2009 people can over-state the idea that, you know, that there's a comedy barrier that separates, you know, 11:30 and 12:30, and that you'll ignite antimatter if you bring 12:30 into 11:30. Do you know what I mean?
And do you think it's mostly just been a question of like oh well, he can't do the masturbating bear at 11:30.
Conan O'Brien: Yeah. I think people focus on the masturbating bear. And I say, well, how about the self-pleasuring bear? And, you know, I've had actually people say to me, well it's too bad, because you could never do triumph at 11:30. And I tell them that's funny, because Triumph's been a guest on Jay Leno's Tonight Show like three times. And they say oh. You know. So yeah, I think a lot of that's sort of over-blown. I just, you know, it - and I look at the stuff that I've done, you know, I did comedy I really liked when I hosted the Emmys and that was in Prime Time. And that was all stuff that was - had a Conan-y feel to it. And it worked fine. You know, I made slight adjustments here and there, but - but - but really there's so many things. You know, I tell people if you looked at my - if you looked at my last week of shows, where we, you know, aired montages - the stuff we've done over the years, I would say 90% of it was stuff that I think could have been done at 11:30 - or 10 o'clock at night or 9 o'clock at night, you know.
I wanted to see how you're adapting to California? And what you miss most about New York now that you're out on the West Coast?
Conan O'Brien: I miss the street culture. I miss walking down the street. When you walk down the street in Los Angeles, people think that you're off your meds. And people in passing cars think that you've lost your mind. Like why is he walking on the sidewalk? There's a culture here that if you're not in your car something's very wrong. If you're not in your car, you better be walking right into a restaurant or a club. And if you're not, it means that something's gone wrong with the circuitry of your mind, and the police should probably be notified. You know? That - that gets a little - that takes a little getting used to. And there are areas you can drive to, you know, down in Venice for example. You can drive to places and park your car and then walk around, and there's a neat street culture. And Santa Monica has the same thing. But you need to plan it out and go there. Whereas, you know, in - in Manhattan, you, you know, you - you bump into life and the world wherever you go.
So speaking of the walking around, we've seen a lot of you running on the beach in all of your promos in your suit looking very at home in California.
Conan O'Brien: Yeah. Yeah I - I'm like Nixon on the beach, yeah.
What else have you been doing in California that you're like okay this is how LA life is, that you didn't do in New York?
Conan O'Brien: Well it's weird. Yeah, I - I like to ride my bike and I'm a big bike - I love riding my bike. And twice I've gotten my bike and gone for a ride. And cars would like drive along with me and shoot me, like the whole time. And that never happened in New York. And, you know, I keep thinking really? I'm the best celebrity out right now? You know what I mean? Isn't Johnny Depp on a unicycle somewhere? Like, and they would follow me for quite a while. They followed me once, you know, I - I - because I really like to - I like to take like a 35 mile ride. And they once followed me for easily 15, 20 miles of that 30 mile ride. And I thought, I just felt like man, you guys are burning a lot of gas to get - and how many of these do you need? But, that's - that's different in - in Los Angeles. That doesn't, you know, that doesn't happen in New York. But, I - I plan to keep riding my bike. I'll probably just put a paper bag on my head and crash into mail boxes. But, I like to ride my bike and, you know, I also like - they have great - what's crazy about LA is that you can take these hikes where you - you might as well be on - you could be in Greece. I mean they have these amazing trails that you can walk on. And suddenly you're up on a giant peak and the Pacific Ocean is - you always feel like you've taken a vacation somewhere, you know. But you're only like 10 minutes from your house. And I like to wrestle rattle - they have rattle snakes out here. I - I like to wrestle rattle snakes.
I've never seen one. But I'm glad that you like to.
Conan O'Brien: Yeah. I'm taking care of all them for you. You have not encountered a rattle snake because I killed it for you. I just - I love to walk the trails, because they come out at the hottest part of the day. So I like to get out in the hottest part of the day, walk the trails, and when I see one I pounce on it and we wrestle.
The last show - last Late Night you did, you - you gave this really great kind of I guess going away speech - or the best word for it. Where you kind of talked about how, you know, you could basically never grow up. And you thanked everybody. What prompted that and why'd you feel the need to kind of say, you know, say that you'd never grow up?
Conan O'Brien: Well I think there was a lot of - at the time, I had so many people that were sort of acting like well now that you're getting this big job, you're going to change right?' And I think it was more of a response to that. Which is that, you know, I just had a birthday and I turned 46 and - and I thought, you know, if turning 46 and having two kids hasn't basically changed me, I don't know that The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien is going to change me. Do you know what I mean? So, it was more a feeling of just, you know, I think it was my needing to say, you know, to - to all those people that have been watching me for 16 years, you get it. You know who I am. And that's - that's - there's no changing that now. Do you know what I mean? And, I think that that, you know, and - and I sort of felt this responsibility to say that. Because felt like there'd be a lot of people watching that last show who had been with me since 1993. And I wanted them to know that this is who I am. You know, that you - this hasn't been an act. This is basically who I am. And - and there's - there's nothing I can do about that now - for better or for worse, you know.
You talked about being on the Universal lot, but what about the new studio itself? Could you give us a little of description of what's that like? They built that thing for you.
Conan O'Brien: Yeah they did.
What's the set going to look like?
Conan O'Brien: Yeah, the set is, you know, it's funny. I met with the designers (Shaffner) and (Stewart) who are these brilliant designers. And I met with them over a year ago, when we were talking about what the set should look like - be almost a year and a half ago. And I said, I want to give you one word which is elegant. I said, you know, the - the - I have a certain sensibility, and - and I bring my sort of comedy persona to this, but it's The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. And is a venerated, you know, beloved NBC franchise - television franchise. It's almost 60 years old. And The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien should be elegant. And I - that doesn't mean I can't do silly things in that space. But the space itself I think should be - should be beautiful. And, you know, that yeah, this show is changing hands, but it needs to look like The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. And by that I mean, it should look as if Steve Allen could materialize, or Jack Paar or Johnny Carson, or Jay Leno - any of those people could suddenly materialize and - and go into that space and host it. And even though they would all host it differently, it needs to be a space that tells you this is that same Tonight Show. And so, what they decided, and what we all talked about was an art deco feel that - that art deco had an obvious New York school, but it also had a Los Angeles movement - there's - there's a Los Angeles deco that's quite famous and organic to Southern California. So we went with that look. And I think it's really beautiful. They did a art deco mural that runs along the top of the set that's this beautiful multi-colored mural. And it has, you know, (dirigibles) and an NBC, you know, 1930's - it looks like a (WPA) mural. You know, and it's - it's got a - a radio tower and it has rays of - it's got search lights and beach scenes. And I think it's a really gorgeous space. Because I, you know, I'm a jack ass. There's no changing that. But I want, you know, guests to look good on this set. And this has to be a set where, you know, I can interview Will Farrell but I can also interview the leader of a country. Or, you know, a - a movie icon. Or, you know, a beautiful actress. And they need to be comfortable. And they need to look good.
One of the things you're keeping from the current - the old show is - is the theme we understand, but it's going to be changed a little bit?
Conan O'Brien: Yeah. We've turbo charged it a little bit. And it - it's - I think it - the - the - I love that theme. And I'm a believer that you don't change your theme mid-way through your career. You know, Bob Hope stuck with thanks for the memories. When you get a theme, it takes so - it's long and hard to establish it, you keep it. So we decided we'll keep that theme, but the 12:30 version which I loved, had kind of a moodiness to it which was appropriate for 12:30. We've brightened this with some different (horn) pieces here and there. And you can really - it - it's got a - I would say brighter is - is the word I would use.
I was wondering what makes you really just laugh out loud - laugh until you cry? And if that's stuff you think you can put on 11:30? Or if it might not play with the average person - whoever the average person is?
Conan O'Brien: No. I think - I - I really - I'm not a snob when it comes to comedy. I'm - if I - I almost - I'm almost zealous about - about not being a comedy snob. For example, in - one of the things when I was a kid that made me laugh the hardest was a Three Stooges episode where a bear - they go camping and a bear ends up stealing the Three Stooges' car, and it's a convertible - a 1930's convertible. And the bear drives down this road. And it gets to the end of the road, and just as it's going out of - out of shot of the view, it puts out its paw to signal for a turn. And it was one of the funniest things I ever saw. And I always cite that to my writers, that funny's just funny. I - I appreciate a really great, you know, Steve Martin (pros) piece in The New Yorker. But I also loved it when he put an arrow on his head. You know, it doesn't - there's so many different ways to be funny. And that, to me, you know, what I've wondered over and over and over again is that stuff that really makes me laugh hard can be, you know, works on other people. I'm not, you know, it - funny is just funny. And that needs to be the focus. So, I don't think that there is - I think the biggest danger to me taking over The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, and I've thought this since the beginning, is over-think. I think the biggest - the worst mistake I could make would be to over-think it. I think it just has to be a funny show, and I need to worry about making June 1st funny, and then I have to worry about making June 2nd funny, and then June 3rd funny. And that if I do that, the audience will find it, and that we'll be okay. That's always been my belief.
Do you ever, in terms of look at Stewart and Colbert and what they do? And does that play into the - the success they're having with getting really young viewers? Do you look at what they do and think whether there's things we can? Have they influenced you in any way? I mean certainly I can see some of your influence on them - more on (Stewart) I think than on Colbert, but...
Conan O'Brien: You know, I feel like I really admire what they do a lot. And - and I'm a big fan of what they do. And I think they've, you know, you know, they've made two of the better shows on television. You know, and - and - but I, you know, it's - I would probably - I was never as, you know, primarily focused on politics I would probably say. You know, that's an aspect of what I do, but - but, you know, I - I probably always had more joy in the silly sketches. Do you know what I mean?
Conan O'Brien: And - and so, I never - it never made me want to oh let's change our show to be more like those shows. I always admired it. But I never thought yeah, it's just not what I do. Do you know what I mean? And if I tried to do it, I wouldn't - I don't - I wouldn't be as good at it as they are, because they are not my - it's not really my passion. I love doing jokes about politics. I like doing, you know, and I think at our best we've done some good things over the years, and some good (satirical) things with the (Clutch Cargos). And - and I think when we have a good monologue joke, it's as good as - it's a really good, you know, joke or comment on what's happening. But, you know, but my true joy has always been to put a - a - a flashlight under my chin and, you know, predict the future wearing a - a, you know, Buck Rogers cloak. Or, you know, I - I really like the physicality of what I do. I like to be silly in space. And - and I love the sketches and the (altened) reality. And I think that that's something that, you know, everyone should - I really believe everyone should do what it is that most inspires them. And I - and for better or worse, I'm doing that with what I like, you know?
So could you talk a little bit about what Andy's role is going to be on this show? And how you plan on using him?
Conan O'Brien: Yeah. Well, you know, we - we thought basically Andy will be my funny friend who's there with me. Which - so in that regard it won't be that much different from, you know, his role on the old Late Night Show. The biggest difference is I thought, you know, there are - first of all, Andy for years has had sort of a side career doing voice over stuff and going to voice over auditions. And he has a really good voice. And it was this obvious thing, which is, well wait a minute. There were times on the old show where Andy would just, you know, when he had things to do it was great. But when he didn't have something to do and he was sitting there on the couch, it could feel a little awkward at times. And there was this obvious move, which is wait a minute, Andy should be the announcer, you know, for the show. But he can also - once he's out there, he and I can still be (riffing) off of each other. He can be helping me with sketches. He can be going out and shooting things. He and I have such a great connection, and have such a great chemistry, that - and it's hard to find that in television. And I, you know, sometimes I'm watching other shows and I see that they send out correspondence. And I always think, well what's that person's connection to your show or to your sensibility? And with Andy I don't have to worry about that. Do you know what I mean? I don't have just get a random - I got a random stand up comedian - or a random person to go out and file a report. I think people sometimes watching the show wonder, well what does that person have to do with you? Is that your friend? Is that someone who reflects, you know, what you think is funny? And, so yeah. Andy, you know, already because we've been shooting some things and we've been doing some test shows. Andy has, you know, he's - he's just terrific. He's just, you know, he's in the moment. He's really funny. He's out there. We (riff) off each other. And Andy's not afraid - if I say something, to say wait a minute. What the hell did you say that for? Do you know what I mean? And that's where you can get gold sometimes. Is it's someone out there who can question me, and, you know, support me or attack me as - as we need, you know, as - as the situation calls for it.
So in some cases he'll be used as frequently as if you were, you know, next to you on the couch?
Conan O'Brien: Yeah. I - I think it should be whatever's working in that moment. So Andy can be, you know, he's got a (pla) - he's got a - a set, you know, he's off to the side of me announcing at the top of the show. He can do a comedy bit with me. He can come over and sit on the couch. I mean he can - he can leave the studio and go tape a piece. He can go outside and do a stunt. So it's basically he can go wherever we need him, which is great.
Have you missed being away from television? This is just the longest break you've taken now?
Conan O'Brien: You know what's funny? It - it -it's very strange to be off television when you're on television for that long. But, the one thing it - that is - it has in no way been a break. Because my show went off the air - The Late Night Show signed off on February 20. And I think two days later there was an SUV waiting for me outside my apartment. And I got into it and it took me to the airport. And I started my affiliate tour. And that lasted for four and half weeks or something. And the minute that was over, we hit the ground running here trying to set up this Tonight Show. And it has been a marathon since. So - of trying to prepare and get ready. So, although I haven't been on television, I think I've actually seen my family less than I would if I was doing the show. And my wife has said I can't wait until you get back on the air because we might actually see you more. So, you know, it hasn't - I think if I was doing nothing, I'd be losing my mind. But the fact that I'd been out and I'd been shooting field pieces and doing test shows and things like that has - has made me very much feel like I'm still working.
The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien premieres on Monday, June 1 at 11:35 PM ET on NBC.