CHICAGO - “I kind of like these things,” Conan O’Brien said Friday at WMAQ-TV.
Chicago was the second stop after a morning visit to Detroit on a tour that will take him to 40 NBC stations around the country en route to planting himself behind a desk on the West Coast as the new host of “The Tonight Show” on June 1.
“This is old-school television,” O’Brien said. “You actually go into America and you talk to these people who put your television show on. I really find it fascinating. I don’t know if this is how TV will be in 10, 15, 20 years.”
Already it’s different than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
O’Brien took over “Late Night,” which follows “Tonight” on NBC, in 1993, just as cable’s Balkanization of TV was gaining momentum. Viewers were starting to spread across dozens of channels tailored to taste. The ad money the big networks once split was scattering across the spectrum.
He leaves “Late Night” to successor Jimmy Fallon in six weeks and a far more splintered universe.
“When I started, you would go to these big banquets (for sponsors and stations) and there would be this giant NBC peacock in ice and people jumping off the balcony, throwing rum drinks at each other,” O’Brien recalled. “It was like the fall of Rome. It turns out it was the fall of Rome. Now it’s a cash bar at the NBC Store.”
It is just such economizing that has become as much a part of the story of O’Brien’s rise to replace Jay Leno on “Tonight” as his wobbly start on “Late Night.”
Many believe the cost-efficient move of sliding Leno into a prime-time slot five nights a week, 95 minutes before “Tonight,” weakens O’Brien’s new platform. O’Brien is agnostic.
“I fully expect the media will speculate over what this means and we’re all going to find out in the next couple years,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m happy that Jay is staying at NBC. ... I have no interest in another late-night war. The media likes it, but I don’t think Jay likes that and I don’t like that.
“What I decided when I heard about this is to say: Look, I’m happy he’s staying. I don’t know exactly how this is going to play out, but nothing has changed for me. I’m hosting ‘The Tonight Show.’ That’s the show I watched with my dad when I was 10.”
The goal for O’Brien is not to do the Johnny Carson “Tonight” he watched with dad, and not Steve Allen’s, Jack Paar’s or Leno’s.
“One of the questions I have to resolve by doing this show is: What is a 21st century ‘Tonight Show’?” O’Brien said. “What is a ‘Tonight Show’ in 2010, ‘11, ‘12, in a world where there are DVRs and 300 cable channels?”
Before he can build it in his own image, however, O’Brien has pored over designs for the new studio NBC is building for him on its Universal Studios movie lot - not part of the adjacent theme park because, according to O’Brien, “I don’t want someone who’s just been through a log flume and has 65 liters of a sugar drink in them then watching me chat.”
The new home will be not quite double the size of his Studio 6A home at New York’s 30 Rock, which could accommodate an audience of about 200. Size and scale for maximum impact are of the utmost importance - bigger but not too big.
“You need intimacy,” he said. “You want to allow for the possibility of a herd of elephants wandering in, but the funniest things that happen on my show a lot of times are small moments that happen in a small space and then expand. ... The reality is you get to a certain size and unless you’re Gallagher and you’re smashing watermelons with a mallet, you’ve lost people beyond the eighth row.”
As for how the show itself changes, O’Brien expects it will be similar to his growth on “Late Night.”
“There are things that I did in my 30s and early 40s, like Masturbating Bear, that I’m sure some frat guys will say, ‘You sold out by not doing Masturbating Bear,’” he said. “But I’m tired of it. I’m 45 years old ... and I have two kids now.”
He has, in certain respects, grown up on “Late Night.”
“I know I’m getting ‘The Tonight Show,’ but the seminal broadcasting experience of my life is always going to be the ‘Late Night’ show,” O’Brien said. “Because you’re only that young and crazy and hungry and deluded once. It’s Rockefeller Center, David Letterman’s studio and that crazy story we went through (where) I almost got (axed) five times and shouldn’t even be here. Nothing can match that.”