On Oct. 4, 2018, Conan O'Brien hosted the latest episode of Conan, his long-running TBS late-night talk show. Then he didn't come back with a new episode the following week, or the week after that, and he hasn't for more than three months.
This was all by design: On Jan. 22, Conan returned to TBS with a new look and a different format. Some of the changes to Conan, which airs Monday through Thursday nights, will be immediately evident: a new set, no more desk and no more house band. Most notably, the show's running time has been cut from an hour to a half-hour.
Some of O'Brien's extracurricular activities during his broadcasting break — projects he unveiled at the end of 2018 such as a live tour, a podcast and a new installment of his stand-alone Conan Without Borders travel specials — have helped inspire modifications at the TBS program. They've also become brand extensions, providing more sources of revenue as the TV show shrinks.
While some of these changes were designed to keep Conan competitive in the crowded late-night field, O'Brien hopes they will also help the program capture more of the unpredictable comic energy he has been chasing from the moment he succeeded David Letterman as host of NBC's Late Night in 1993.
When he looked back on himself in those earliest broadcasts, O'Brien said he saw a performer attempting to fulfill competing desires. "We're trying to be anarchists, but I'm trying to be a good boy and do a good job for the network," he said. What he's engaged in now, he said, "is this gradual progression toward me making the job fit me more — what do I like?"
Over breakfast in Los Angeles, O'Brien talked about the decision to restart Conan, the changes to the show and what might come next for him in his evolving TV career. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: When did you first have the idea to take a break from the show and reconceive it?
A: Last year, I was coming up on 25 years as a late-night host. It made me realize, wait a minute, really? I remember when Johnny Carson retired, it was 30. At the time, that was such a big part of the story, that someone had had a television show for 30 years. It just struck me that the miles do add up. The repetition can get to you after a while. I was the new guy for so long, and then that card flips overnight — you go from the inexperienced, nervous punk to the old dean emeritus. I started to think, does it have to be that way? Let's say I've got a couple years left in me. What if I tried to, in the most selfish way possible, alter this so that I have a maximum amount of fun? I decided to scare myself.
Q: What led you to these other activities — the live tour, the podcast, the travel shows?
A: I had done a tour before, but this was no bells and whistles. I started out thinking, I need like 10 minutes upfront. Then that became 15, then that became 20, then that become half an hour. By the end it was 40 minutes. It was really liberating.
The podcast was suggested to me as, well, that's a cool space and you might do well in it. It sounded a little strange, and then we tried one where I just interviewed some of my writers, and I loved it. The travel shows opened up my eyes, too, because they're completely outside the realm of anything I do. They can be frightening because they take away a lot of control. I'm out there, I don't often know what I'm going to encounter.
Q: What did you take away from these experiences that you could put back into the TV show
A: The big thing I wanted to do was pull the audience closer and make it like a cool, fun place to do comedy that you might find in Los Feliz or that the Upright Citizens Brigade might have. I wanted it to have a little bit of that compressed feeling, and I like having the audience right there. It feels less presentational in the old-school way.
Q: Is that why, for example, you got rid of the traditional host's desk and won't be dressing in a suit and tie anymore?
A: I grew up revering the format, and then over time, you think, what's feeling like it's vestigial? I really don't miss the desk. It started to feel like I'm doing someone's taxes. None of my guests are wearing suits. I look fine in a suit, and I will wear a suit sometimes. If one of the Obamas stops by, or when Trump comes, as he inevitably will, I'll wear a suit. The most successful things that we've ever done on YouTube are me wearing my Indiana Jones-as-archaeology teacher look. And people accept that.
Q: What about reducing the show to a half-hour? Was that a business decision?
A: There were arguments on both sides. Among the guys in rooms that crunch numbers, it's controversial. You sell a lot of ad time in an hour — you sell half as much in half an hour. This is where this joint-venture idea evolved: We can scale back the show, but we can make Turner partners. We can develop not just my podcast, but the travel shows and these specials with other comedians. I like to use the Rockefeller oil industry as my model. The octopus, if you will, that strangles America.
Q: Do these changes affect the creative process of the show?
A: I'll give you an example. An alarm bell, to me, is when the post-mortem meeting feels like drudgery. We've been doing it after every show since the beginning. We all get together in my dressing room and we go through the show act by act. This is how much we're over, this is how much we've got to edit. This is what worked, this is what didn't. How come that bunny puppet didn't blow up when it was supposed to? We had it down so cold that people were on their iPhones. We all go in there, slumped down, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Q: And now?
A: The post-mortems on these two test shows? It's like a knife fight in there. It's, "This was way too long, how do we cut this?" "Wait, that felt weird." "Well, I didn't think it felt weird." "I don't like the way this looks." "I like the way it looks." It's turbulent and there's conflict and I like it. It's Lenin's Politburo versus Brezhnev's. One is lots of angry disagreement and the other one is like, uhhh, grain production, and everyone knows this has got another five years anyway and then it's going to fall apart but we'll be dead so who cares. These are terrible analogies, by the way.
Q: Is this how you want to go out, with a show that gets smaller and smaller until it's gone?
A: Maybe that's OK. I think you have more of a problem with that than I do. [Laughs.] At this point in my career, I could go out with a grand, 21-gun salute, and climb into a rocket and the entire Supreme Court walks out and they jointly press a button, I'm shot up into the air and there's an explosion and it's orange and it spells, "Good night and God love." In this culture? Two years later, it's going to be, who's Conan? This is going to sound grim, but eventually, all our graves go unattended.
Weekend on 01/31/2019
Print Headline: O'Brien wants to scare himself with new, shorter Conan