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” will return 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 like 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’s 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 told me on Friday, he 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.
How does it feel to be so near to resuming the show, after being away for a few months?
My analogy is, in surgery, when they have to stop your heart so they can operate on you, there’s that weird moment when the doctor must be like, all right, time to start the heart up again! What if it doesn’t start? What if I walked out on the first test show and just started openly weeping? But we’ve done two test shows so far and it feels really good.
When did you first have the idea to take a break from the show and reconceive it?
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.
What led you to these other activities — the live tour, the podcast, the travel shows?
I had done a tour before, but this was no bells and whistles. I started out thinking, I need like 10 minutes up front. 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.
What did you take away from these experiences that you could put back into the TV show?
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.
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?
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.
What about reducing the show to a half-hour? Was that a business decision?
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.
Does it feel like a blow to be doing a half-hour show when there are still so many other hourlong shows out there?
It would if I hadn’t been around this long. It also would if there weren’t shows like “The Daily Show,” and Sam Bee and all these other shows. I know when I’ve been feeling like we’re padding out the show because I’ve got to get to the full hour. When I know that the part of the show that has the real protein and that people really want, happened in the first half-hour — literally the first 21, 22 minutes.
Do you still have flexibility within that half-hour?
We can go long. We might have stuff that I want to try, and we shoot it and it could go in a different show. I might shoot whole extra acts afterward that I just put online. There might be nights where I do an hour of content. TBS gets the half-hour version and some of that other half-hour either goes into a different show or is consumed in a different way.
So in your first relaunched show, if you feel like having a longer conversation with Tom Hanks, you can?
First of all, here’s my strategy with Tom Hanks: rudely interrupt. I know the real Tom Hanks. And he needs to be rudely interrupted. He’s a very cruel man in real life.
Do these changes affect the creative process of the show?
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.
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.
You’ve referenced the idea of finality a couple of times now. Even though you’ve got plenty of life left in you, do you feel like you’re somehow setting up for your final act?
I’m never going to have a better farewell show than I did on “The Tonight Show.” I loved that show and so I feel, in a weird way, I had my farewell show. I did it. I died, and talked to my grandfather and saw the light and was called back. This concept that I must be the king of late night, I don’t even know what that means anymore. I don’t know who that is anymore. It’s an outmoded concept. I’ve come to realize that there’ll come a point where it’s just not even thought of as late night: “Oh, you make that stuff that makes me laugh.”
Is this how you want to go out, with a show that gets smaller and smaller until it’s gone?
Maybe that’s O.K. 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 unattended.
You’re right, that does sound grim.
Sorry. Calvin Coolidge was a pretty popular president. I’ve been to his grave in Vermont. It has the presidential seal on it. Nobody was there. And by the way, I’m the only late-night host that has been to Calvin Coolidge’s grave. I think’s that what separates me from the other hosts.
I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.