The Consecrated Host
Two years ago, to mark Conan O'Brien's 10th anniversary as host of Late Night, The Hollywood Reporter conducted this interview with the freckled Irish wag.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: 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?
Conan 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 a 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 the 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 my friends 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 funnier when 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 the 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 Jeff Ross. That usually gets us to around 1 in the 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 a 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 with 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.