Don’t be fooled by the invincible hair.
That 6-foot-4 ivory tower of Irishness (perhaps 7 feet with that steely, eternal carrot top), Conan O’Brien is aging along with the rest of us. Now 51 and with more than 20 years of TV hosting — except that period when he was legally prohibited from being funny on television — O’Brien is on the verge of becoming the old man of late night.
“Once Dave [Letterman] departs, I instantly become the Old Prospector,” he says by phone from his Burbank offices. “I’m the host who appears to other hosts in the night. Then later on, when they go into town to get coffee, they say, ‘I got advice from that old guy, Conan.’ And they say, ‘Conan? He died 20 years ago.’”
O’Brien is still alive and kicking enough to have a message for Letterman’s replacement — and erstwhile O’Brien “feud mate,” Stephen Colbert:
“I slaughtered a barnyard animal, and I had it delivered to his house,” he says. “Unfortunately, he subscribes to a service — slaughtered barnyard animals are delivered to him every day. ‘Severed Horse Head of the Week.’ So he just assumed it was part of the regular delivery.”
Back in ’93, it was “Conan who?” During the “Tonight Show” fiasco (in which O'Brien was given the reins to the show but was soon bumped out to allow Jay Leno back in), it became “Conan where?” But now that he has made himself at home at TBS with "Conan" since 2010, a lot of answers have become clear to the man called Coco.
“I feel my career has straddled these two crazy extremes. When I took over, one of my first assignments was to give a toast at an event that Johnny Carson was also giving a toast at. He had just left, like, a year earlier. So it felt like there was still part of that dynasty,” he says.
“Now it feels like, I looked it up the other day, I think there are three talk shows for every United States citizen. We need, actually, immigration reform because we need more guests.”
The host has managed to stay nimble through changing times.
“These shows used to exist as the only thing; there’s a whole generation of people who come up to me and say, ‘You got me through college,’ ‘You got me through law school.’ Now they’re all in their late 60s. ‘You got me through the Vietnam War,’” he says, laughing.
“Now people are experiencing these shows more à la carte. There’s been a massive revolution in media that means people can experience these shows many different ways at many different times in many different pieces.”
That kind of buffet-style viewing has helped him reach new audiences, rather than limiting his show to, as he puts it, the folks who have to stay up until 12:35 to apply some sort of cream.
“There are things I’m doing with my remote [segments] that I was always doing that seem to resonate more now. And because they’re not tied to a specific thing that’s happening in the news — I had someone come up to me the other day, and they had just seen the Kevin Hart one, and they were laughing their ... off. I said, ‘Yeah, I did that six months ago.’
“So many moms come up to me because they have to go to the American Girl store, and they saw me get drunk at the American Girl store. I’m shocked at how young — I have kids come up to me who are 16 years old, they know me only from the gamer remotes [‘Clueless Gamer,’ in which O’Brien fails at various popular video games such as ‘Grand Theft Auto V’].”
Despite those successes, O’Brien says the interviews can still be his favorite segments.
“I really like it when the interviews get derailed. My favorite thing is when the show goes out of control, because I’m a reactive comedian. Obviously, I love it when someone like Will Ferrell comes on because it will go completely off the rails. When something feels broken, I usually say, ‘This will not air,’” he says with obvious glee.
“I like it when I can get people to say or do things they wouldn’t with other hosts. When Harrison Ford comes on my show, I always feel like we get him to be somebody he isn’t anywhere else.”
The three-time Emmy, five-time WGA, and one-time Telvis winner (for “Color Spot of the Year”) hasn’t drifted far from his original mission.
“The task has not changed. Every day I come to work, I remind myself, ‘I’m really lucky to get to do this,’ then to try to make something that’s very, for lack of a better word, ‘Conany.’ What’s true to me? I don’t want to imitate anyone else, I don’t really want to be influenced by anyone else. I just want to make my thing my way and do it to the best of my ability.”
That Conany goodness has seen him into a third decade on the air, but the competition is only getting stiffer. The “Game of Thrones” fan is not averse to letting his fate be decided via trial by combat.
“I’ve studied tape of all of them. They all have very shallow chest cavities. I have the upper-body strength. I also have the length in the arms, I have the reach. And I have long, grasshopper-like legs. I’m well-schooled in turn-of-the-century boxing rules.
“I think they would be distracted by my hair.”