Conan O’Brien says he’s changed since that spot of bother with Jay Leno and the suits at NBC.
“I think I’m more of a man,” the once and future late-night star said after headlining Wednesday’s TBS/TNT upfront previewing the basic cable networks’ new fall schedules. “We’ve actually done tests. My testosterone levels have tripled since I went through this experience.”
The 47-year-old redhead, who has grown a full beard since he left The Tonight Show and embarked on a 32-city comedy tour, added: “I shaved yesterday, and it came right back. You remember the old Conan. I couldn’t grow a beard before I went through this experience. But I’ve changed in many ways. I’m physically much stronger than I used to be. I can bend a tire iron with my bare hands.”
“I’m interested in moving on,” O’Brien said. “I really just want to be funny on television. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do."
He said that the fans on tour are practically love-bombing him. “I signed my first breast recently. It was a guy.”
O’Brien, who held court beside a basement staircase in the Manhattan restaurant Del Posto, said he was operating on two hours of sleep after flying in from a show date in Minneapolis this morning and preparing to fly out this afternoon to Chicago for another one. He claimed to be exhilarated by the prospect of launching his 11 p.m. TBS show later this year, and had been joking and schmoozing with fellow TBS talk show host George Lopez a few minutes earlier. (“See, people thought we were lying, but we do like each other,” Lopez told me as he went inside for a celebratory lunch.)
“There is no way the new show won’t be influenced by some of the stuff I’ve gone through in the past couple of months,” O’Brien said. “What that is, I can’t tell you. Of course it’s going to be influenced.”
O’Brien described his “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,” which comes to Radio City Music Hall at the beginning of June and ends in Atlanta on June 14, as a “hybrid” between a rock ‘n roll juggernaut and a standup comedy gig.
“It’s a comedy show, but there’s a rock 'n' roll energy to it, and the crowds keep getting more and more intense,” O’Brien said. “We just did Dallas. I didn’t know what to expect. It was crazy. Tulsa was insane. They stood for the whole top of the show. For half an hour they had their hands on the lip of the stage, so you could step on their hands—which I did … This is something I’m maybe not going to ever get to do again. I’m not somebody who’s going to be out every year. So it feels a little like a happening.”
I asked O’Brien how the experience of touring night after night has changed him as a performer.
“That’s not for me to comment on—I think that’s for other people,” he parried, before launching into a thoughtful answer.
“It’s been a fun surprise to me,” he said. “I go out and I’m onstage alone at the top of the show for half an hour, Just riffing ... We have prepared a template for the show that we follow, but I always try to make the top about that city, and that has to change every night, which is a lot of improvisation. It’s just me and a microphone. That part I’m finding really fun. Last night [in Minneapolis], it was their hatred of St. Paul … And for me, that’s building a muscle that I didn’t really get to use before. My career was coming from a very cerebral place from the beginning. It was ‘think everything out,’ cerebral, building a Swiss watch, whether it was The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live. And then getting more and more into the performing thing, and then having it get more abstract. And this feels like it’s taking it to some other level. And that’s why I think this will influence what I do at TBS. It can’t not. I can’t tell you exactly what that is. I have no idea.”
O’Brien said he was glad he did the much-buzzed-about interview with 60 Minutes, in which he complained about NBC—which had tried and failed to get him to agree to a post-midnight start time for Tonight in order to accommodate Leno’s wish to return to his old time slot.
“I’m interested in moving on,” O’Brien said. “I really just want to be funny on television. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. So I was happy to address it and then move on…It was a good place to do it…I got really good feedback about it. And just felt that’s OK, let’s move on now. Enough. You know? Enough already!”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.