MIAMI - Three in the morning and Conan O’Brien’s eyes were wide open. Not that his zillion-dollar-a-night bed at the Mandarin Oriental was uncomfortable; but it’s only three months - three months! - until he eases his lanky frame into that desk where Johnny and Jay sat and begins the first of what he hopes will be 5,000 or nights of anchoring “The Tonight Show.” Twelve million eyeballs will be fixed on Conan, and what’s he gonna do?
“I’ve always been a worrier and a planner,” O’Brien admits. “I’m thinking about possible cold-opening ideas for ‘The Tonight Show.’ You always think and worry. That’s just the life that I’ve chosen. Someone asked Dick Cavett recently, what’s it like to host one of these shows? He said, ‘It’s just like having a nervous breakdown every night.’
“I can relate a little bit to that. At the same time, you love it, so it’s this crazy yin-yang of ‘It’s the thing you want to spend the rest of your life doing, and it’s constantly terrifying you.’”
O’Brien didn’t LOOK terrified last week as he wandered from set to set in the WTVJ-NBC studios in Miramar, Fla., taping promos and schmoozing advertisers and cracking up the staff. He even came close to making headlines - LOCAL NEWSWOMEN PLUNGE TO DEATH IN FREAK ACCIDENT - when, without warning, he ad-libbed a leering-lounge-lizard growl at the end of one promo. Diminutive WTVJ anchors Jackie Nespral and Julia Yarbough, tottering atop wooden crates in their high heels so they wouldn’t look like midgets next to the 6-foot-4 O’Brien, dissolved in staggering laughter.
“Yeah, women always laugh when I do that,” says the frowning O’Brien. “‘Oh, Conan, that’s really funny. Stay away from me. I’m never seeing you again.’”
But it’s not all fun and games when you’re taking over the most venerable television program in America.
In the 54-year history of “The Tonight Show,” there’ve been only four hosts, all television legends: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. “I know, you put ‘Conan O’Brien’ in there, and it does sound like the punch line at the end of a joke,” he admits. “It’s a little surreal.”
Not that the 36-year-old O’Brien is a rookie, either at comedy or talk shows. A performer with improv groups like the Groundlings and a staff writer at “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons,” he took over from David Letterman as host of NBC’s “Late Night” in 1993. After a rocky start (O’Brien used to joke that people recognized him on the street: “Look, honey, there’s the guy who doesn’t deserve his own show!”), he won over both critics and fans. Five years ago, NBC announced he would succeed Leno on “Tonight.”
Five years is a long time for a congenital worrier to construct paranoid fantasies. Like, what if the first “Tonight Show” guest has a bizarre on-camera meltdown the way actor Joaquin Phoenix did on Letterman’s show last month, mumbling catatonically and staring off into some unseen video horizon?
Actually, that one isn’t a worry so much as a devout hope, O’Brien says.
“In my business, you pray for Joaquin Phoenix, because that’s getting everybody talking the next day,” he says, adding that the agonized look on Letterman’s face during the interview almost certainly turned to a smile at the first commercial break.
“In the moment, you realize someone’s not being cooperative,” O’Brien says. “And Dave’s fight-or-flight mechanism probably gets triggered. Your mind is fighting as if you’re in a house fire. You know what I mean? But probably immediately after the interview, Dave realized, ‘That’s some GREAT television.’
“That’s where these shows can be different. There’s so much entertainment out there, and there are so many ways that, especially, young people can choose to spend their evening that doesn’t include conventional television. They have the Internet and YouTube, and there’s all kinds of video games. But when you can have these crazy, weird moments, no one can replicate those. I think Dave was probably initially unhappy and then jubilant.”
Like a football coach studying game film, O’Brien has spent a lot of the past five years reviewing what he considers great moments in talk-show television, particularly from “The Tonight Show” - though they weren’t as easy to find as he expected.
“A lot of Carson was lost,” he notes. “It’s tragic, actually. Carson’s shows from the mid-‘60s until the late ‘70s were all kept in an NBC storage facility. And some accountant decided in the late ‘70s: ‘What’s all this stuff?’ Someone said, these are just old tapes. ‘Well, get rid of them.’ So they destroyed them ... What we have of Carson is a lot of stuff that Carson himself had saved. But they lost a ton.”
O’Brien was particularly fascinated by surviving tapes from 1957 to 1962, the turbulent years that Jack Paar hosted the show. Paar gave the show some intellectual heft by adding politicians like John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon to the guest list and some roller-coaster thrills with his emotional outbursts. He once quit, on the air, after discovering that NBC censors trimmed a faintly off-color joke (it included the term W.C., or water closet, a Brit euphemism for bathroom) from a show.
“He came in the next night, sat down at his desk, said, ‘There must be a better way to make a living than this,’ stood up and walked out the door,” O’Brien says. “His sidekick Hugh Downs had to take over the show. I’ve seen the footage. Hugh Downs just looks like he’s thunderstruck. The audience doesn’t know what’s happening - some people think it’s a joke. But Paar’s eyes are filling with tears.”
O’Brien was so transfixed by the footage that he arranged to have dinner with Paar one night shortly before the retired host’s death in 2004. Paar disclosed that the high on-air drama of his resignation ended in low comedy on the street outside NBC’s Rockefeller Plaza studios: Paar, realizing the network limo wouldn’t be taking him home, had to hitch a ride to his house in Connecticut.
Much of the dinner conversation revolved around how the culture of both America and television had altered so radically since Paar’s years as host. The image of a host who wasn’t allowed to say “W.C.” on the air talking about standards with another whose regular characters include a masturbating bear and a robot pimp is way beyond surreal, O’Brien concedes.
Whether those characters will make the transition from the ragged 1:30 a.m. ET fringe of the television universe that O’Brien now inhabits to the middle-America-relaxes-after-the-news slot “The Tonight Show” occupies is still up in the air, he says.
“You never know,” O’Brien says, joking that the bear may do his usual routine on “The Tonight Show” but under the name The Bear Frantically Searching For A Cell Phone In His Fanny Pack. More seriously, he muses that “the culture’s changed so profoundly” just in the time he’s been doing “Late Night.”
“There’s a generation gap between me and my kids,” he admits. “I look at some types of these shows on MTV, and I just think, ‘I don’t understand what this is. Why are these people talking this way?’ That show ‘My Super Sweet 16’ (a reality show about the parties of spoiled drama-queen rich kids) just blows my mind. And then I start to feel like I’m over the hill.
“If you’re sitting here thinking, ‘I can’t imagine that the masturbating bear is going to be on at 11:30,’ there’s some kid somewhere who’s probably thinking, ‘the masturbating bear doesn’t go nearly far enough.’ So either way I’m screwed.”