Skimming through the transcript for Conan
O'Brien's Wednesday (Jan. 12) meeting with the Television Critics Association, the three-word phrase "the last year" was only used nine times, but it felt like a more pervasive theme.
He was run out on a rail by a struggling network (if that's the version of the story you subscribe to), became beloved and critically adored media figure as he walked out the door with dignity, traversed the country in a live show, grew a beard, launched a new talk show on TBS and ended the year with the youngest-skewing program on late night, a bona fide hit.
And yet one of the first questions for O'Brien regarded how relaxed he seemed, wondering whether he feels less pressure in his new gig than he did 12 months ago on NBC and "The Tonight Show."
"I’m very heavily medicated and have been for a long time, since — for a year now," O'Brien cracked. "You know what? I don’t think so... [Y]ou know there’s such a lot of tumult and craziness for me, personally, in the last year, and a lot of great things came out of it. But I think you get to this point where you decide I’m not interested in, personally in, you know, I'm not going to be on TV forever. It’s not something that interests me. I’m really interested in what can I contribute? What can I do? And if I don’t do it now, when am I going to do it? And so there’s really a feeling, especially up to the last year, of I’m very appreciative. There’s nothing like leaving, you know, walking away from 'The Tonight Show' to make you really appreciate getting to be on the air and getting to do a show. And so I think some of that spirit is coming through."
It's a spirit that isn't just infecting O'Brien, but also those around him.
"A lot of our people came over from the last gig," O'Brien said on the Warner Brothers Lot set of "Conan." "A, really, shockingly high number of people were able to stick with us and rode out this last year and helped us put together this show, and there’s a feeling here with everybody. The crew, the staff, a lot of the people in their early twenties who are working on the show, we’ve all been through something in the last year, and so there’s sort of a spirit. There’s a little pirate-ship feeling to this show, which I love. Everybody has it because we all went through it. None of us knew what was going to happen, were we going to get other jobs, how were we going to make it through this thing. We stuck together. We did. And that creates a real strong dynamic here at the show that I think is coming through on television."
It's not that O'Brien has ceased to be bitter or self-conscious about what went down at NBC. When asked about reports of a phone call with David Letterman over the holidays, O'Brien was magnanimous.
"[W]e hadn’t spoken for a long time, and he just called to basically say, you know, 'I haven’t checked in on you. I just wanted to make sure that we were good.'" O'Brien recalled. "And I said, 'We've always been good.' I have a lot of respect for that guy. I said, 'You didn't owe me a phone call, but I appreciate it.'"
But when asked about whether he could imagine a conversation in the future, touching base with Jay Leno, O'Brien had trouble completing a sentence, but his sentiment was clear enough.
"No, I don’t think so. I mean... I don’t think there’s... I think everybody... We all know what..." O'Brien tried to come up with the right words. "You know, there’s nothing to be figured out. We all know the story, and we all know what happened. I think it’s better just... you know, life is short. I’ve got kids and a family. I’ve got a life to live. And I’m really happy here. So I don’t think about it too much. I don’t think there’s... I’m sure he’s busy."
And Conan is also busy. With his beard. No, that wasn't a good segue, but O'Brien's facial hair was a subject of conversation at the day's previous panel with George Lopez and it came up again with CoCo.
"I grew a beard because I hate shaving," O'Brien explained. "I stopped shaving after the last 'Tonight Show.' I shaved that morning, and then I didn’t shave. And I grew a beard because that’s what you do when you
go through something and especially when you go in broadcasting and you need to shave every day. It’s a feeling of liberation. 'I’m just going to let my beard go.' And everybody does it who loses a job or goes through something traumatic, you know. You do something, and I grew a beard. We got closer and closer to the show, and I remember [producer Jeff Ross] calling me into his office and saying, 'The beard, is it going to stay, or is it going to go? It’s going to have to.' And I said, 'I don’t know.' And then the next thing you know, we were taking publicity photos with the beard. And the next thing you know, we kept the beard. [I]t could go tomorrow. I don’t know. I’m taking this thing a day at a time. It might just fall off, a lack of testosterone..."
Like I said, it was a long year for O'Brien, a long and busy year. He started 2010 as a talk show host with a passionate following, but at points, he's become the ultimate underdog icon, a symbol for the little guy screwed by the system, at least insofar as you can consider a man with his vast wealth to be an underdog. O'Brien still enters the studio to loud and prolonged chanting of his name, an occurrence he admits has "a Stalinist feel about it."
"It's fun to be Mussolini for five minutes at the top of the show every night, but I don’t see that continuing," O'Brien said. "And like I say, we certainly don’t take it seriously, and we don’t encourage it."
This embrace hasn't just been limited to the Internet. Conan recalled walking into a restaurant after his "Tonight Show" ouster and having patrons break into applause.
"You know, I’m very suspicious of those things, naturally," O'Brien confessed. "I’m a 'Do your job and shut up' person. That’s my motto. I don’t get gifts very well. I like to give gifts, but I don’t like to get them. And I have an Irish Catholic suspicion of praise and anything that feels a little over the top. So I think I was uncomfortable with that to some degree. I’ve always just wanted to be someone who was funny on TV, and when some people try to make it more than that, I was uncomfortable with it."
He added, "It’s still my only goal. I’m happy to move past this period of time and just have people say 'Did they like my show last night? Did they not like my show?' And my only goal is, you know, for people to look at me as an entertainer and someone who I hope makes them laugh at night between 11:00 and 12:00 on TBS and do whatever I can to make this thing — find out where this goes in this new world. I’d like to just play with it and find out where it goes. But the rest of it, standing for something, meaning something more than just being funny on TV, I’m suspicious of and uncomfortable with."
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