Conan O’Brien’s do's and don’ts for keeping the late night talk show genre alive: a) don’t be afraid; and b) do be silly.
PopcornBiz asked O’Brien, whose late show “Conan” is clicking on all cylinders since debuting on TBS following his controversial ousting from “The Tonight Show,” how he felt about the future of the genre that made him a star. We posited that in the current, cluttered TV landscape, total dominance akin to Johnny Carson’s seems unreachable, and even the heights he, Jay Leno and David Letterman have experienced seem elusive for any host to achieve going forward. O’Brien agrees late night’s future seems murky.
“I don't think anybody knows,” O’Brien tells PopcornBiz. “We don’t know if late night shows are going to be a pill that you take in three years or a saline drop that goes in your eye. None of us knows.”
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He does believe that hope lies in a commitment to creative experimentation over time rather than knee-jerk reactions to immediate numbers.
“If I’ve taken one thing away from the last year, it’s that fear here is the enemy,” he says. “What I experienced a year ago, I think I was in a situation where a lot of people around me had just had a lot of fear about change and fear about which way things were going and could get paralyzed by it.”
“I think that’s the only answer right now, not to be so afraid,” O’Brien says. “Whether it’s jumping into Twitter, jumping into getting involved in social media as actively as I’m involved now, going around the country on a tour, starting this show on TBS, really trying to make the web component of our show really a vital part of the show and a creative entity unto itself and seeing where this goes and not being afraid of what’s happening in media right now. Just saying ‘Okay, I don't know what my place is in this, but I think if I’m honest with my audience and I’m funny and I’m constantly trying to challenge myself, I think there’ll be a place for me in whatever this turns out to be.’”
O’Brien also thinks everyone should remember that a childlike sense of play is crucial, best evidenced by Carson himself.
“Let’s not forget that the guy who everybody agrees was the best at it there ever was inherently very silly,” he explains. “People have deified him and they’ve made him this mighty on-high sort of Greek statue. I think he should be deified as an icon, obviously, but what was great about him is he was not afraid to be really silly. Really silly – Carnac coming out and stumbling, the giant hat, falling into things and smashing things.”
“Some of my favorite clips of his are him jumping into Ed McMahon’s arms,” he adds. “There was a physical silliness to the whole thing, sometimes a cartoonish silliness to it. He could also talk to anybody about astrology or astronomy or he could talk about physics. He was a very brilliant man, but he didn’t think he was surrendering anything by being silly. He didn’t think that he was giving away an essential piece of himself.”
“I think that silly is all right."