He has been a TV host for 20 years, most famous, even now, for not holding onto the job fronting NBC's Tonight Show.
But talk to late-night host Conan O'Brien about the current state of TV — including his 11 p.m. TBS show, the load of viral videos it produces all over the Internet, the Rebel Wilson sitcom he's producing for ABC and the Adult Swim cartoon he's producing with ex-Late Show With David Letterman writer Chris Elliott — and you get the sense he has never been happier.
"There's this world out there now that's actually keeping me youthful," said O'Brien, 50, who talked about 14-year-old kids stopping him in airports to talk about their favorite viral videos from his TBS show, Conan.
"I grew up in one world, watching Johnny Carson clips," he added. "Then a million crazy things happen, and you realize the mission is to . . . try to make something funny happen and it will get out. Whether someone sees it at 11 o'clock on TBS or their Google glasses show it to them, it doesn't matter."
And O'Brien isn't alone. In fact, there probably isn't a better time in history to be a creator or connoisseur of great television programming.
Cable channels are bursting with great shows, from the high-quality dramas on AMC, HBO and FX to popular reality programs on A&E and TLC and the revival of miniseries on the History channel. Netflix, Yahoo, Amazon and Hulu are stepping up with their own original shows, with Netflix making history earning the first Emmy nominations for an online-only series.
And thanks to video on demand, smartphones, laptops and tablet computers, fans are increasingly able to see what they want, when they want, where they want.
Then why does this season feel so desperate for network TV executives?
Like old-school nerds trying to dress cool and sneak into a hip nightclub (a scenario that actually occurs in Wilson's ABC comedy Super Fun Night), broadcasters have cloaked their typical fall deluge of new shows with as much 21st century pixie dust as possible, aping the cool kids on cable and online to stay relevant.
Fox has snared the king of viral media, Saturday Night Live alum and Lonely Island comedy group member Andy Samberg, for one of the season's best pilots, the cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Love the explicit horror of The Walking Dead? Then watch the Headless Horseman decapitate innocents and enable a centuries-long mystical conspiracy in Fox's new take on Sleepy Hollow.
At ABC, their biggest show is a spinoff of one of the biggest movies ever. Marvel's Agents of SHIELD hopes to pull the fanboys who made The Avengers the third highest-grossing film of all time onto the network of Grey's Anatomy and Dancing With the Stars.
CBS is sticking with its playbook, mining for a broad comedy hit with in-house hitmaker Chuck Lorre (Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men) and his new show Mom, while cooking up The Crazy Ones for Robin Williams, a star sure to charm the NCIS crowd.
And NBC seems to be chasing everything that has worked for every other TV outlet, from greenlighting a sequel to the History channel's blockbuster miniseries The Bible to bringing back Dracula, Sean Hayes, Michael J. Fox and a thinly veiled, spy-focused revamp of Silence of the Lambs called The Blacklist.
"We're the only broadcast network flat (in viewership) from the previous season," Bob Greenblatt, NBC's chairman of entertainment, told TV critics in July, sounding as tired as you'd expect the head of the third-place network to be. "I know one could say, 'How good is it to celebrate being flat?' But at this point in our business, flat is the new up."
Actually, since people now are consuming more than 157 hours of TV per month — a rise of two hours from last year, according to Nielsen — flat is the new challenge for network TV. Those extra hours likely are being spent somewhere other than on their product.
The only question left is whether this year's crop of new fall TV shows will bring a new solution, or just more problems.
Trends of the season
If the prevailing trend in today's TV industry is more of everything, then network TV's new season falls right in line. • ABC debuts eight new shows this month and next, followed quickly by NBC, which has six, and Fox, with five. Even CBS, the highest-rated and often most stable network, is stepping up with five new series, along with three on the CW, which it owns.
And despite the barrage of new programs, a few distinct trends are easy to see.
Broad comedy is in. Everyone wants to create the next Big Bang Theory. It is the last big comedy hit in old-school broadcast network terms, with a huge audience, critical acclaim, fan devotion and ability to rake in loads of cash through syndicated repeats.
That's why Fox turned to Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane for Dads, its multicamera sitcom about two video game company owners with overbearing fathers. But broad and irreverent for MacFarlane often means sophomoric with borderline sexist and racist tendencies, so a scene where the guys push an Asian employee into wearing a schoolgirl uniform to charm potential Chinese clients drew a huge backlash.
Most other stabs at broad comedy suffer from the fact that most great sitcoms come from the depth of their characters, which don't exist in pilot episodes. Famously, the pilots of classic sitcoms such as Seinfeld and Cheers were awful.
So it's easy to dismiss the aging lothario divorcee Tony Shalhoub plays in CBS's We Are Men or the Type A gay single dad Sean Hayes plays in NBC's Sean Saves the World as predictable and cardboard. Judging whether they'll flower is a bit like judging a book by its first chapter.
Dysfunctional, crass parents rule. Too many network TV comedies this fall center on cartoonishly dysfunctional parents to adult characters, including CBS's Mom, The Crazy Ones and The Millers; ABC's The Goldbergs and Back in the Game; NBC's Sean Saves the World and Welcome to the Family; and Fox's Dads.
Sure, such roles are great opportunities for showbiz veterans such as Beau Bridges, Linda Lavin, Allison Janney and Martin Mull. But they're also predictable as a banana peel on the floor, a not-too-subtle revelation of how many Hollywood TV writers have issues with their own parents.
Family stuff is in. The deluge of dysfunctional parents comes courtesy of the decision to focus so many fall TV shows on family comedy, piling NBC's The Michael J. Fox Show and ABC's Trophy Wife on top of the shows listed earlier.
The result is a landslide of cute kids saying impertinent stuff (my favorite: Trophy Wife's 9-year-old Albert Tsai, who blackmails a caregiver into buying him a $100 set of Legos), frenetic parents making bad decisions and aging grandparents talking about farts or sex (or, even worse, both at once).
Diversity only goes so far. As in years past, there's still only one new network show starring a nonwhite actor, perennially employed Blair Underwood in NBC's sadly lackluster remake of the classic cop show Ironside.
But there's a new trend to beat back the inevitable complaints of under-representation: the ethnic co-lead.
Three of Fox's five new shows feature black actors who arguably share top billing with white actors: Andre Braugher on Brooklyn Nine-Nine;, Michael Ealy on Almost Human and 42 co-star Nicole Beharie on Sleepy Hollow. And NBC's Welcome to the Family, featuring a Latino family brought together with a Caucasian family by a pregnancy, tries giving equal weight to each household.
With any luck, if a few of these shows work out, perhaps network TV will grow less skittish about courting demographics that comprise a bigger portion than ever of their audiences.
It's easy to take potshots at the TV networks these days, even as they struggle to cope with a surge of competition, sinking ratings and a growing inability to repeat episodes (that business is moving to online and video on demand services such as Netflix). But it's also true that the quality of new shows is slowly growing, with fewer pilots turning out so stinky you wonder why they were made in the first place.
Will that be enough to connect with an audience that's now pickier and less patient?
Not even the network honchos know for sure. "People are loving television, but how they're watching it and where they're watching it and what they're watching . . . is very difficult to always get by the tail," said Kevin Reilly, Fox's chairman of entertainment. "I don't think we're a bastard stepchild or any sort of broken system. . . . It's just hard."