He knows it’s a gigantic step, but Conan O’Brien is more than ready to slip into the shoes of Jay Leno as the new host of NBC’s iconic Tonight Show. For 16 years and more than 2,700 episodes of The Late Show, O’Brien has been quietly waiting. And now he goes for the funny bone at ll:30 p.m. in step with a revered tradition established by his predecessors Leno, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen and Jack Paar. The move means he will go toe to toe with his CBS rival David Letterman. O’Brien, who started out as a writer for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, insists that while his comedy may be sillier and less stand-up than Jay Leno (who will have a 10 p.m. comedy slot starting next September on NBC) he’s more than ready for action. The 46-year-old, who looks considerably younger, thanks to his East Coast pallor and freckles, took time out this week to answer a few questions.
VCR: Are you scared?
I had the same feeling in l993 when people said, “He must be petrified.” My most overwhelming feeling was “Let’s go do this.” I call it feeding the dragon. Every night, you have to come up with fresh material to fill five hours a week. I imagine I will go heavy on produced comedy — one of my strong suits.
VCR: Besides getting good guests, what’s your new formula?
We will have great guests — Will Ferrell, Pearl Jam, Cheryl Crowe, John Mayer, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ryan Seacrest. When I am enjoying myself at being silly or having fun with these people, it’s good television. I know it’s The Tonight Show and a big responsibility, but it would be a shame not to enjoy it.
VCR: How has the move to L.A. affected you?
I look at it as moving from one playground to another playground for the first time in l6 years. I’m in a strange culture. People just laugh when they think of me in Los Angeles. They’d be disappointed if I didn’t reinvent myself to a certain degree.
VCR: Will shooting daily on the famous Universal Studios movie lot be helpful?
We wondered whether they were going to let us play with the Universal toys, but they said, “Anything you want to play with is yours.” And there are these tourist trams. Terri Hatcher, who works on Desperate Housewives, told me that when she’s feeling down about herself she just goes out and waves at the tram . . . and people scream, wave back and take pictures. So now I know what to do when I’m in a funk.
VCR: Do you enjoy living in L.A.?
It’s a weird place. I go out on my bike for a 35-mile ride and suddenly people in cars follow me. They follow me for 15 miles. They’re burning so much gas. When you walk in L.A. people think you’re off your meds . . . or there’s something wrong with the circuitry of your mind and the police should be told.
VCR: How has the transition with Leno gone?
Very well. There’s no denying the media believes conflict makes good reading. But Jay and I go back to l993, and we’ve gotten along well. He’s been very kind to me. He’s happy, I’m happy, and that’s been a godsend.
VCR: Has he given you any advice?
The oldest advice I ever got was from Johnny Carson, who told me, “Just be yourself. Do it your way because the show is just an extension of the host.” Johnny did, so did Jack, Steve and Jay.
VCR: Will you try to appeal to a broader, Middle America audience?
I try not to put that in the forefront of my brain. My best stuff is being silly, and that should work for all kinds of people. But I don’t put ratings in front of my brain and worry about how to appeal to middle America. I don’t want to pander to that. We can still do the masturbating bear at 11:30 — only we’ll call him the self-pleasuring bear!
VCR: What’s the biggest advantage about doing comedy earlier?
For the first time in my career, I’m doing it for people who are fully awake.