When David Letterman retires next year, Conan O’Brien will take his place as the longest-serving late-night host. Which is ironic, strange and perfect, because O’Brien made his debut as Letterman’s extremely young “Late Night” replacement in 1993.
“I was forged in the flames, and I was so young and so inexperienced, and was 29 when I auditioned. But I looked 25,” O’Brien told TheWrap on Wednesday. “And I look at the old tapes and I look like a kid who stole his dad’s suit and went to an audition. I was like 16 or 20 years younger than everybody else.”
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“I went through a couple of years of, ‘Who the hell does he think he is?’ And then it suddenly accelerates: ‘It’s the old icon. It’s the admiral of the fleet. He’s gone senile. Let’s get him some soup. It’s just funny that it happened very suddenly.'”
O’Brien spoke to us on the day he agreed to extend his TBS show, “Conan,” through 2018. We talked at a lunch hosted by the network, where O’Brien sat across from his announcer, Andy Richter.
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Their dry interplay on the show is real. They seem to delight each other with jokes pitched over the tablecloth. At one point Richter contemplated ditching O’Brien to host a game show.
“It’s been a good run,” Richter said.
“It hasn’t been that good,” O’Brien corrected him.
Then O’Brien gave Richter a compliment too quiet for Richter to hear: “He’s the reason I come to work every morning.”
Well, that and a new contract. We talked with O’Brien about how his goals have changed, even if his sense of humor hasn’t.
You said on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast that you’re a fierce competitor, but only with yourself. What a great thing to say.
Some comedians watch other comedians or some athletes watch other athletes and it never helped me. I always think, that’s what that person’s doing, but what I do is what I do. I get inspired by people around me to possibly try different things or push it or stretch it, but there’s no, “Hey! That seems to be the way to go! I’m gonna go become one of those.” I don’t know how to do that.
If there are 10 variables in the show, and seven go right and three don’t, all you think about is the three. If somehow you get all 10 things to line up, which hardly ever happens, you immediately want that feeling again. So you’re the rabbit, the hamster that wants the cocaine pellet. That’s the sad truth. Your ear gets adjusted to that great feeling of connection you get when you’re funny in your own way.
I get no satisfaction out of being funny someone else’s way. If I’m funny being myself, and it’s working, it’s … erotic.
Do you find yourself adjusting life goals as you go?
It’s very humbling to do this show. The thing you don’t know when you’re younger is you think it’s all about getting there. And then at one point people start to tell you, by your 25-year-old definition, you got there — but you’re still not satisfied. I won’t say you redefine what it is, but you realize the trick, as you get a little older, is especially in comedy to me — there are comedians who are still inspirational to me. Steve Martin is still the funniest guy in the room. Martin Short is still the funniest guy in the room.
Those guys are the generation ahead of me but they still make me laugh harder than anybody. I see them and I think, OK, those are my guideposts. There are people who didn’t get lazy, who are really funny, they can make 23-year-olds really laugh, and their age is irrelevant. You don’t think about it. You don’t think about, “Steve Martin or Martin Short‘s funny for a guy from that generation.” They’re just really funny. So to me, I would say that’s the biggest change.
You don’t really think about age, do you?
It’s so funny. I don’t, that much. And then every now and then I’m reminded. I fill out a form or something and realize I’m 51. But I don’t feel any different. I don’t think my comedy’s changed. When I walk around, when I go to these events, the people that are excited to see me are usually the younger people. … Maybe it’s because I always looked younger than I am. But also it’s my attitude. I’m genuinely excited when things make me laugh, and I’m genuinely willing to debase myself to get a laugh if it’s gonna work. … It doesn’t seem to matter. And then I realize it doesn’t matter to me about Steve Martin or Martin Short. It’s irrelevant.
You became the longest-serving host really suddenly. Leno retired, Letterman’s retiring.
You know what’s funny is I remember when I first got to “Saturday Night Live.” I think I was 23 at the time, and it was 1988. There were these old black-and-white pictures on the wall of Chevy Chase and John Belushi. And I would look at them like they were Civil War daguerreotypes. I was very reverential. Because it was 13 years in the past. I was looking at them like I would look at a picture of Lincoln. And then what happened was, I would realize the distance between 1988 and now is much greater than 13 years. It’s — I’m terrible, I’m jetlagged — 26 years!