Conan O'Brien on taking over Tonight Show Monday: '(I'm) like a racehorse put in the stall five years ago'
But Conan O'Brien sounds unruffled to the point of boredom while talking about his impending June 1 debut as the new host of NBC's Tonight Show, shrugging off controversy about the old host sticking around to lead a 10 p.m. show this fall -- imagine if Johnny Carson had moved to prime time after handing his show to Jay Leno back in 1992 -- and emphasizing his friendship with the previous regime.
"Jay staying with the network and going to 10 o'clock has made the transition easier for all of us," O'Brien insisted in a conference call with journalists Tuesday. "He's happy, I'm happy. It's kind of a godsend."
In the course of an hour, O'Brien also reveals his Tonight Show will keep his old theme from Late Night With Conan O'Brien, but in a new form, and his approach to the new show will mostly be about channeling his old self in a new Los Angeles studio. Now 46 and married with two kids, he's a very different man than the unknown 30-year-old who took over David Letterman's old time slot in 1993 -- an experienced hand given the biggest playground of his career.
"Johnny Carson, when I first met him years ago, told me: just be yourself. That’s basically, all anyone who knows anything about these shows tells me – do it your way. These shows are such an extension of the host. A host has to put his stamp on it, that’s the only way it’s going to work.”
"In my career, I never once said I’m going to do X because that would be a good rating. I always seem to do things that were funny, and the ratings follow. Foremost in my mind was really to try hard to give people a good show try and establish that the Tonight Show – the tradition at least continues.”
"I have a rule, which is don’t over-think this. My most important job is to think of funny things to do with my writers and really enjoy this. When I’m having fun it seems to be good television. If I’m happy, it tends to look good on television. I know it’s a big responsibility, but man it would be a shame not to enjoy this.”
"To me, it’s not about who gets a guest first, it’s what you do with them.”
“This move is kind of unprecedented in network television. (But) at the end of the day, nothing changed for me. It’s June 1 2009, I’m hosting the tonight show. Don’t worry about what anybody else is doing. As far as what this does to broadcast television in general: I have no idea. I don’t know where we’re going to be a few years from now. The Tonight Show might be a pill you get from the drug store. And people swallow it with a vodka tonic and say ‘Good monologue Conan.’”
“At some point, my show is going to have to morph into a detective show. About four weeks in, Andy and I will be solving crimes. It’s going to be Murder She Wrote with a slightly younger demo.”
"I had this feeling in 1993 – most people thought 'Oh my God, he has to be petrified.' But the most overwhelming feeling you have is 'Let’s go do this.' It’s the doing of the show where you find what the show is. I’ve been telling people I feel like a racehorse that was put in the stall five years ago.”
“At this point, to quote Popeye, 'I am who I am.' This is it. And so my job is to apply that sensibility to this venerated talk show legacy and see what happens.”
“I miss the street culture (in New York). When you walk down the street in Los Angeles, people think you’re off your meds. There’s a culture here, if you’re not in your car, you better be walking into a restaurant or a club. That takes a little getting used to.”
“There were nights (on the old show) where we did arbitrary humor…I would give my writers a hard time. They would say 'The joke, is that there’s no joke.' And I would say, 'Yeah, but we’re getting paid'. There would be times when it was 1:25 in the morning and we’d have a cactus playing flute just to see what would happen. Can we do that at 11:30? Well, maybe at 12:20. For the first time in my career, I’m performing for people who are fully awake.”
“It’s very strange to be off television when you’re on television that long, (but) it has in no way been a break. The late-night show signed off on Feb. 20. Two days later, there was an SUV waiting for me and took me to the airport, I went on an affiliate tour. And when that was over, we started trying to set up here and prepare and get ready . . . My wife has actually said, 'I can’t wait until you get on the air, so we might actually see you at home a little more.”