Conan Ready to Mark 10th Anniversary
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Nine years and 11 months ago Wednesday, Conan O’Brien debuted as the successor to David Letterman on NBC’s “Late Night” franchise.
NBC hedged its bets in that rocky first year by giving O’Brien 13-week contract renewals, but the one-time writer for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons” is now basking in the show’s first Emmy nomination for variety series and a 10th anniversary primetime special set to air Sept. 14.
O’Brien spoke with The Hollywood Reporter deputy editor Cynthia Littleton last week about what he has learned in his on-the-air training during the past decade.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: WHY DID YOU RE-UP WITH NBC LAST YEAR THROUGH 2005? YOU HAD A LOT OF OPTIONS AND WERE OFFERED A LOT OF MONEY BY COMPETING NETWORKS.
Conan O’Brien: I wanted to re-up for 13 weeks. I thought that would be really funny, but (NBC executives) weren’t interested in that… I had a strong feeling that my work wasn’t done here. We did our claymation special (in May), which was one of my favorite things I ever did. I think our best work is still ahead of us… The reason it appealed to me is that Dave (Letterman) did it for something like 11-1/2 years. This contract will put me through to 12 years, and I remember thinking that that meant something to me. I remember what it was like when people thought I might not last 10 more minutes. The idea that I might be able to have a 10th anniversary special — that meant something to me. It’s not all about money. I was offered a ton of money, and that’s great, but I wanted the deal that enables me to keep doing this thing I love doing. That’s the most important thing. I know I didn’t maximize my earning potential — my agents hate it, they keep reminding me. But I’m getting to do good work, and I think I’m still getting better at this job. I’m also making much more money than I ever thought I’d make in high school, so really, what’s the problem?
THR: WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED, WHEN YOU WERE STILL DEALING WITH THOSE 13-WEEK CONTRACTS, WHAT WERE THE HARDEST THINGS ABOUT MAKING THE TRANSITION FROM WRITER TO PERFORMER?
O’Brien: The hardest thing for me was that I knew I had a funny persona and that I had a point of view. I knew it was there. I didn’t become this person over the last 10 years; I was this person. But I didn’t have the chops to be this person on TV every night for an hour… It was just very tricky for me to learn how to be Conan O’Brien on TV for nine-minute periods of time and then throw it to commercial seamlessly… For the first year and half of the show, you know, you could almost see me thinking, you could see me trying to be a good talk show host. It wasn’t fun to watch.
THR: WHEN DID YOU GET TO THE POINT OF FEELING COMFORTABLE ON CAMERA?
O’Brien: What happened over time is that all the things you have to know — which camera to look at, how to begin a segment, how to end a segment, how to stand — all those things, eventually, they become second nature, and that allowed my personality to come out. I don’t have to think about it anymore. If you wake me up in middle of the night, I’ll say, “And my next guest is Fabio” … then I’ll have questions for him… So now 10 years later, you’re not watching Conan trying to be a good talk show host; you’re watching me in the moment, having a good time trying to be myself, having fun, you know, letting my mind go… That’s always what I was doing with myfriends in high school and college. For years when I was a writer, I was the guy in the room performing for the other writers.
THR: ARE YOU COMPETITIVE? DO YOU CALL IN FIRST THING IN THE MORNING FOR THE OVERNIGHT RATINGS?
O’Brien: Comedians are naturally competitive — it started with us trying to be funniest person at our dining room table when we were growing up… There’s definitely a competitive side to me, but I don’t think these late-night talk shows work as a competitive sport. I don’t get more creative and funnierwhen I watch other people’s shows. It doesn’t get my creative juices going. If you’re obsessing and watching other people’s shows, you’re gonna consciously or unconsciously imitate them… The other thing is, ratings can be misleading. When they’re figuring out ratings at 12:30 at night, the data’s coming from like 80 people in the Nielsen sample. If two of those people get head colds and go to bed early, suddenly you don’t have as good a night as you might have.
THR: WHAT’S A TYPICAL WORKDAY LIKE FOR YOU?
O’Brien: I usually work out in the morning because you don’t just get a body like mine, you have to work it. I get into work in the morning, but things don’t heat up until about 11 o’clock. I tend to walk from office to office on our floor. I sort of peek my head into offices, and a lot of times I have a guitar on, and I’m singing. That’s how I relax. I learn a song a week to annoy people. I make up songs to tease people… The first formal meeting of day is at 11:30. That’s where we run down what the show is that day, what potential problems there are. Then I’m usually with the head writer for a bit, talking down the show, or I’m talking to (executive producer) Jeff Ross. That usually gets us to around 1 in afternoon. Then I sit with the segment producers and talk about who are the guests today, what stories do they want to tell. We talk about the guests, and lot of it is just trying to figure out what are good ways to start those conversations, what are the potential things I could be funny about. Half of the time you end up coming up in the meeting potential ways I could be funny in an interview, then other times they are improvised. Those are the best. The audience tends to sense when it’s improvised. Then maybe there’s a pretape (segment) or something I have to shoot for that day’s show. We try to do our rehearsal at about 2:30, but that doesn’t usually happen right on time. Some rehearsals last a long time, sometimes they’re very tense, and sometimes they’re very easy. There are definitely not enough easy rehearsals… That takes me to around 4:30, and I go in for makeup and hair. Then just before I go out to warm up the audience around 5:15, we pick the jokes for the monologue. And we fight over them.
THR: WHAT YARDSTICK DO YOU USE TO TELL IF YOU’VE HAD A GOOD NIGHT OR NOT?
O’Brien: For me, it’s usually measured by the size of my pompadour. When it inflates, when I have a 6-inch shelf of red hair sticking over my forehead, that’s a good show. When it’s lying down flat like Moe on the Three Stooges, it’s time to check out an infomercial… I think a good show is when the writers and producers build a jungle gym, and I go out, and the show is me jumping around and playing with it, having a good time. That to me is a good episode of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” It doesn’t happen every night — otherwise, a really good show wouldn’t feel like an event. There are too many variables. The crowd, the guests, the mood I’m in, and then it’s also like, what’s the weather like outside? When all those things line up, that’s a great show. And that’s a powerful drug that just keeps you coming back over and over and over again. You’ll walk over hot coals to get to another one. You’ll drag your ass through four bad crowds to get to another good crowd. It feels so good.
THR: WHAT’S UP THESE DAYS AT YOUR NBC-BASED CONACO PRODUCTION COMPANY?
O’Brien: Basically, the idea behind the company was that now that we seemed to have a bit of a brand of comedy, we’d try to make something we really like and try to get it on TV. . . . My goal is to have a game show on every network, and I host every one. I want to out-Regis Regis… This year, we’re just meeting with a lot of writers, talking to them about their ideas. The appeal of it all to me was that I’ve always loved being around writers. I didn’t want a vanity company. I didn’t want it to be, “Oh, let’s just give Conan a production deal to shut him up.” One of my favorite things in life is being in roomful of funny writers and being able to contribute in some way. So the thinking was that this would put me in touch with talented people and see if we can’t make something out of it. We’ll see.
THR: SPEAKING OF MAKING SOMETHING, YOU AND YOUR WIFE ARE ABOUT TO BECOME PARENTS. HOW DO YOU THINK HAVING A BABY WILL AFFECT YOUR WORK?
O’Brien: Yep, Oct. 11 (the due date), it’s coming up. I wanted to time it for the 10th anniversary special. It would’ve been great if the baby could be born on TV at the end of the 90-minute special. NBC’s promo department would’ve done a great job with that… I love kids. I’m childlike. I see this as an opportunity for me to do a separate show. I’ll probably do the late-night show and come home, do another 40 minutes for the kid after I wake him up, give him some coffee.
THR: WHAT TREATS DO YOU HAVE IN STORE FOR THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL?
O’Brien: I’ve never promised anybody anything in television, but this 10th anniversary show is going to be really, really special. I’m really proud of the stuff we’ve accumulated. It’s gonna feel like a live show coming out of the Beacon Theater here in Manhattan. There are going to be a lot of surprises, a lot of guests. It’s not going to be just a clip show… I’m passionate about it in a fiery Latin way.
Conan Ready to Mark 10th Anniversary