THR Cover: Conan O'Brien: End of the Pity Party
Thrown to the wilds of basic cable (and its teensy ratings) after his NBC debacle, the late-night comedian has emerged with his own postmodern TV model: a digital empire, his company's own shows and a young audience TBS hopes will follow him anywhere. As for his years of roller-coaster emotions? "I have no regrets about any of it."
More than two years later, O'Brien reveals there still are occasional waves of resentment: "There are moments of, 'What the hell happened? Why did that person do that or say that?' But there's also lot of, 'OK, let's file this under There's A Lot I Can't Control.' "
O'Brien says he's had no contact with anyone at NBC since he left, including ousted execs Zucker and Gaspin (who declined comment), and the head of West Coast operations Marc Graboff, who opted to leave his Comcast contract early, in November. "It helps that almost everybody involved in the craziness has been relieved of their jobs," says O'Brien.
As for Leno, "He certainly isn't calling me. It's not like he's going to sneak up on me in traffic. He's a guy you see coming from a ways off because he's usually driving a car made of copper that runs on manure and has gas lanterns," he adds. "The odds are we will both leave this Earth without speaking to each other, which is fine. There's really nothing to say. We both know the deal. He knows; I know. I'd rather just forget."
O'Brien pauses, then adds: "At a certain point, you're doing yourself and the people you love and work with a disservice if you carry it around. I had an amazing partnership with NBC and was very disappointed at the outcome, but I didn't feel entitled to the Late Show or Tonight or to the TBS show. If you're in this business and haven't experienced profound pain at some point, you're not doing it right. I strongly believe that."
O'Brien is also candid about the challenges he's faced during his reinvention. Yes, he says, Big Bang reruns have helped save his show. Yes, "there's a lot of work to do" in shaping his "shtick" on TBS. Yes, his mantra of "Get better or go away" isn't easy to apply in the war for late-night relevance, especially amid criticism that Conan isn't different enough from his previous incarnations.
The naysaying isn't entirely different from where it was in 1993, when Late Night premiered on NBC and critics deemed it a doomed experiment, saying there was no place among late-night's heroes for a gawky, red-haired Harvard snob with a funny name and a rocky premiere.
"I would say the same thing that I said 20 years ago," says Lorne Michaels, who hired O'Brien in 1987 as a Saturday Night Live writer, then plucked him from the Simpsons writers' room six years later to be the heir to Letterman's Late Night. "He is so bright; he always figures it out. You see him figuring it out now on TBS. It's like watching him during the 2008 writers strike when there was nothing but him on the stage. He doesn't need the elaborate apparatus of a show to be good. At the core of it, he is one of the funniest people on the planet."
Ferrell credits a higher power: "For Conan to re-emerge with his reputation and integrity intact, it's like the comedy gods are taking care of him." Says O'Brien: "I have no regrets about any of it. What has saved me are family, my staff and work. It's not just about me."
Two days after his birthday, O'Brien sits inside a makeshift greenroom at the University of California, San Diego's RIMAC Arena. It's a narrow space draped on all sides with black cloth. "Dressing rooms can deflate you no matter who you are," he says. "Bob Newhart once said there's always a piece of brown lettuce on the floor no matter where you go. And, you're always 30 seconds away from an audience who doesn't give a shit."
The latter sentiment doesn't apply to tonight's sold-out event in front of 4,300. The unpaid day trip (O'Brien took the train) is partly a favor for a classmate of his from Harvard, Elizabeth Losh, who works at the university.
Many in the crowd are dressed in "I'm With Coco" and "Conan O'Brien College" T-shirts (the university named one of its schools after him for the day), and the buzzy anticipation isn't lost on O'Brien, all casual-cool in a slick brown leather jacket, navy shirt and black slacks. Sipping a Diet Coke, studying material he has written on note cards, he sits in a low squat like a sprinter before a 100-meter dash. His eyes are closed, and the microphone is pressed to his forehead, as if he's exchanging mental notes with the device. At 6:10 p.m., the provost of the university beckons O'Brien to the stage.
"UCSD, I can't hear you!" shouts O'Brien as the crowd explodes in a rock concert-like frenzy.
Pacing back and forth like a gospel preacher, he announces a few promises for his 24-hour tenure as head of Conan O'Brien College. "I will make alcohol free! Pot will be mandatory!" screams O'Brien above the din as it becomes clear that many in the crowd have indulged in both before the event.
He doesn't miss a beat during the Q&A when a charming nerd asks for love advice ("Is she here tonight? Do you want me to call her?" he offers). He politely declines to reveal the number of women he has been with sexually (not many, he admits), fields several inquiries about his hair and erstwhile beard (he lets one woman run her hand through his amber follicles) and, 43 minutes in, invites a giddy young woman to sit next to him onstage, a moment that ends with her accidentally, and harshly, ramming her head into O'Brien's. "That's OK; I'll be fine … there are other celebrities out there. You'll take care of my kids when I'm gone, right?" he asks the girl, who quakes with delight.
"I always tell my wife, 'If I ever have a disease, put me in front of a crowd of college students," says O'Brien. "They will be my cure.' "
That night, a tired O'Brien, with one hell of a hoarse voice, talks about how much he enjoyed visiting with students, many of whom reiterated how much his farewell Tonight speech had meant to them. "I'm asking this particularly of young people that watch," he said in that somber final broadcast in January 2010. "Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism; for the record, it's my least favorite quality. It doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you're kind, amazing things will happen."
He adds: "When I hear those kind of stories, I think, you know, it was all worth it."
THE NBC EXECS: WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Jeff Zucker, former president and CEO, NBC Universal -- The exec at the center of the Leno-O'Brien brouhaha was fired by Comcast CEO Steve Burke in September 2010. Zucker, who exec produced NBC's Today for eight years, is EP on Katie Couric's talk show, Katie, bowing Sept. 10.
Jeff Gaspin, former chairman, NBC Universal Television -- He served in the position for less than a year before resigning in November 2010 amid the Comcast-takeover reshuffling. Now he serves as president of Gaspin Media, a full-service production and media consulting company.
Marc Graboff, former president of West Coast business operations, NBC Universal -- The last top player from the Zucker era to leave, Graboff, now based in New York, heads CKX, parent company of 19 Entertainment (American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance?) and controller of Elvis Presley Enterprises.
HOW THE SHOWS STACK UP: Since December, Conan has gained viewers while their ages have fallen.
Conan (TBS) -- Mon-Thu, 11 PM
- Median Age of Viewer: 35
- Viewers per Episode: 1.1 million
Chelsea Lately (E!) -- Mon-Thu, 10 PM
- Median Age of Viewer: 37
- Viewers per Episode: 942,000
The Colbert Report (Comedy Central) -- Mon-Thu, 11:30 PM
- Median Age of Viewer: 41
- Viewers per Episode: 1.8 million
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (Comedy Central) -- Mon-Thu, 11 PM
- Median Age of Viewer: 43
- Viewers per Episode: 2.6 million
The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (CBS) -- Mon-Fri, 12:35 AM
- Median Age of Viewer: 52
- Viewers per Episode: 1.5 million
Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (NBC) -- Mon-Fri, 12:35 AM
- Median Age of Viewer: 52
- Viewers per Episode: 1.8 million
Jimmy Kimmel Live! (ABC) -- Mon-Fri, 12:05 AM
- Median Age of Viewer: 53
- Viewers per Episode: 1.7 million
Late Show With David Letterman (CBS) -- Mon-Fri, 11:35 PM
- Median Age of Viewer: 55
- Viewers per Episode: 3.4 million
The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (NBC) -- Mon-Fri, 11:35 PM
- Median Age of Viewer: 58
- Viewers per Episode: 3.8 million
CONACO'S BUSY SLATE: O'Brien and Jeff Ross' production company has several shows in production and development.
Doen Cole's Black Box
On May 10, Turner announced a six-episode order of this Tosh.0-esque clips series hosted by Emmy-nominated Conan writer Deon Cole. It is slated to premiere in 2013 on TBS.
Chris Elliott stars in this 15-minute Adult Swim black comedy, in its second season, about a Chuck Norris-like police ranger and his posse -- if Norris were a total idiot and his posse were vacuous dummies.
The Flaming C
Conaco is working on a pilot for an animated series based on a muscle-bound superhero version of O'Brien created by his writers. The company plans to shop the project, produced in partnership with Warner Bros. Animation.
Super Fun Night
This scripted comedy pilot for CBS is filming in Los Angeles and stars Australian Bridesmaids scene-stealer Rebel Wilson as leader of a gaggle of geeky women in pursuit of fun on Friday nights. SNL alum Jenny Slate (Bored to Death) and Groundlings performer Edi Patterson co-star.
Created by writer-producer Josh Heald (Hot Tub Time Machine), this comedy centers on a star student returning home after 10 years who's forced to work for the jock who ruled high school, also with Warner Horizon.
Three roommates discover an alien has moved into their building in this comedy created by writer-producer Ross Venokur (The Tick) and in partnership with Warner Horizon Television.