When I sat down one night in 2003 with Conan O’Brien in his Rockefeller Center office for what turned out to be a three-hour interview, it was during a pivotal period for the Brookline-raised Harvard grad. He had just turned 40. He and his wife, Liza, were expecting their first child. And he had reached a professional milestone that many observers in the TV industry and beyond never expected him to achieve: his 10th anniversary as host of NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.’’
After all, his debut in 1993 had been a near-disaster. When he was chosen to succeed David Letterman, O’Brien was an unknown comedy writer with precious little experience as a performer. It showed. Washington Post critic Tom Shales called him a “fidgety marionette’’ and “a living collage of annoying nervous habits,’’ adding that “O’Brien “seems a switch on the guest who won’t leave; he’s the host who should never have come.’’ Other TV critics weren’t much kinder. NBC had so little faith in O’Brien that the network forced him to work on 13-week contracts.
But by the time we talked in 2003, O’Brien was riding so high that he was able to joke about being forced to “crawl through the giant, year-and-a-half-long spanking machine’’ after his debut. Armed with an endlessly fertile comic mind, he had turned “Late Night With Conan O’Brien’’ into the most creative late-night show on TV. He was a hot property. So it seemed only logical to ask him where he envisioned himself in 2013. Part of his reply: “If 10 years from now — I don’t have to be on the cover of People magazine or be acknowledged funniest man in America — just as long as it could continue to be this interesting and weird and challenging, that would be a pretty amazing thing.’’
Well, things would indeed get “weird and challenging’’ for O’Brien in the years that followed our talk. In fact, he would find himself at the center of one of the weirdest chapters in TV history.
In 2009, he landed his dream job, taking over as host of “The Tonight Show’’ under a deal he had cut with NBC five years earlier, while Jay Leno moved to prime time. But Leno’s ratings cratered, and O’Brien’s numbers were also weak. NBC didn’t give him time to turn them around: The network proposed moving Leno back to an 11:35 p.m. slot, which would force O’Brien’s “Tonight Show’’ to start after midnight. O’Brien refused. He left NBC in 2010, less than eight months into the job in which he had expected to spend the rest of his career.
But you’d have to say O’Brien rebounded OK. He got a late-night show on TBS, where his overall ratings have been modest but he has attracted the young viewers prized by networks and advertisers. TBS recently extended his contract through November 2015 and views him as the network’s signature star, to judge by the torrent of commercials advertising “Conan.’’
As I’ve watched him be knocked down and get back up again, I’ve thought often of the analogy he introduced when we were discussing his comeback from his rocky 1993 debut. “You know the Clint Eastwood movies where they beat the crap out of Clint Eastwood and then hang him but then ride off and forget to kill him?’’ he asked me. “When he comes back and walks through the flames and everyone’s like ‘Omigod, it’s him’? It’s kind of like ‘Hey, guys, you forgot to kill me, and now I’m back’. ’’ O’Brien grinned, then added: “So the bar gets really quiet when I walk in.’’Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.