BURBANK, Calif. — In his opening monologue here one recent Thursday afternoon, Conan O’Brien told his studio audience he’d discovered a trick to help him get used to the new half-hour running time of his TBS late-night show, “Conan.”
“I ordered a Domino’s pizza,” he said. “I’ll know when it arrives to shut the [expletive] up.”
This was just a test show — an episode not intended for air and an opportunity for O’Brien to adjust to the new rhythms of his refashioned program, which formerly ran for an hour a night.
As of Tuesday, he will have no such safety net. That’s when, after having taken a break for more than three months, O’Brien will resume hosting “Conan” in its shortened version.
[Read an interview with Conan O’Brien about the new “Conan.”]
This modified program is one he hopes will be looser, less predictable and more intimate, with a spirit informed by other projects that O’Brien pursued during his production hiatus, including a podcast and a live tour.
He and his collaborators acknowledge that some of the adjustments they have made to “Conan” reflect stubborn truths about the late-night category which, like television in general, has grown increasingly fragmented and which fewer and fewer viewers are watching in real time — if they’re watching on a TV set at all.
The show’s own ratings tell the tale: In fall 2011, “Conan” drew an average of about 1 million viewers an episode, compared to about 300,000 viewers for its final broadcasts in fall 2018. That was substantially less than a basic-cable competitor like “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, which in 2018 had an average TV audience of more than 800,000, and nearly twice as many viewers aged 18-49 as “Conan.” (TBS says it still sees strength in O’Brien’s online and social-media performance, particularly with younger viewers.)
Kevin Reilly, the president of TBS and TNT and chief creative officer of Turner Entertainment, said the changes at “Conan” did not come from any corporate mandate. Rather, he said, they follow from the belief that a different approach to late-night is needed.
“The show is now a hub — the show is not the ultimate destination,” Reilly said.
“This is ultimately a business,” he added, “but there’s not a business in the world that has said, ‘We’re going to stick with it just the way it’s always been.’ At that point, we almost have nothing left to lose.”
Perhaps most crucially, the new “Conan” is intended to preserve the interest and enthusiasm of O’Brien, 55, who is currently the longest-tenured host working in late night. After more than 25 years on the job, first at NBC and then at TBS, he isn’t certain what the future looks like for him or for the genre he helped to reinvigorate.
“If I hadn’t changed this up, I can’t say how many more years I could have done it the same way, every night,” O’Brien said in an interview the morning after the test show.
“When people like the show, there’s visceral joy,” he said. “I’m just trying to jerry-rig the system to produce that as much as possible.”
A few hours before the test show, O’Brien was ambling around his stage on the Warner Bros. lot. He held a guitar and was strumming songs like “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” while his writers tweaked jokes in their seats nearby.
The modest set design, with just a couple of steps separating the host from his audience, was a first sign of the show’s new approach. There was no desk for O’Brien to sit behind, no more stage for a band to perform on, and no more house band.
When O’Brien emerged for the test episode, he was dressed in a jean jacket and tie — his “metrosexual Johnny Cash” look, he called it — rather than a suit. He and Andy Richter, his longtime sidekick, conducted an interview of the comedian Flula Borg from upholstered chairs around a small table.
“I don’t want it to feel like a taping,” O’Brien told me. “I want it to feel like a theater.”
For several months now, O’Brien has been trying to figure out how to transcend the venerable tropes and boundaries of late-night TV. It’s a mission that became a little more urgent when he realized he was approaching the 30-year mark at which Johnny Carson retired from “The Tonight Show” in 1992, one year before O’Brien took over as the host of NBC’s “Late Night.”
Looking at the vastly more competitive field he now occupies, O’Brien said, “Wouldn’t it be nice not to be threatened by change? Not to be threatened by so many different talk-show hosts who are all doing things in different ways? Wouldn’t it be nice to be at peace with, this is not the world I entered in 1993?”
From a practical standpoint, coming up with a plan to rekindle this upstart comic energy meant halting production on “Conan” for several weeks starting in October. During this time, O’Brien focused on other activities, like his first stand-up comedy tour since 2010 and a podcast, “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” that were meant to spark his creativity and help him see his talk show from a different perspective.
By this time, the “Conan” team had also made difficult decisions about some of its fundamental attributes, shrinking the show by 30 minutes a night and jettisoning its musical combo, Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band.
Jeff Ross, who has been O’Brien’s executive producer since his time on “Late Night,” said in an interview that “there were some painful things we had to do to make this happen.” Losing the band, he said, was “one of the most painful.”
But, Ross said, “there are certain financial pressures on all these shows now, for the last 15 years, probably, since linear television started to go downhill. We saw the writing on the wall.”
Without giving specific numbers, Ross said, “We are doing the show significantly cheaper than we were doing it before.”
Throughout the fall, “Conan” remained at the center of O’Brien’s attention, even when he was occupied with the other activities that were meant to take his mind off it.
“He gets crazy when we’re not busy, which it hasn’t been in a while,” Ross said. “About halfway through the tour, he was like, ‘O.K., we’ve got to get back into the show.’”
O’Brien is no longer the youthful unknown who was nearly canceled countless times at “Late Night,” nor the rebel who, after a run of less than eight months at “The Tonight Show,” walked away from NBC entirely in 2010 when the network sought to pre-empt him with Jay Leno.
At the “Conan” headquarters, O’Brien has a deluxe executive suite, bearing the nameplate “President Theodore Roosevelt” and teeming with career memorabilia and vintage guitars. But he prefers to do most of his work in a smaller office in a different wing of the building, furnished with little more than a manual typewriter.
Nearly a decade after the conflict that brought him to TBS, O’Brien is still looking to the future.
“Five years from now,” he said, “what happens when I’m touring, I’m making podcasts and I’m doing some travel shows, and someone goes, ‘Wait, what happened to the late-night show?’”
Answering himself, O’Brien said, “It still exists, but it’s not the thing that it was in 1993 or 1998 or 2005. I’m trying to stay loose, fly on instinct and see where it takes me.”
Richter, who has worked on O’Brien’s late-night shows for some 17 years, said that he and his fellow writers have approached this transitional period at “Conan” with a mixture of excitement and unease.
“We had three months to sit around, thinking about a show that you can’t really write more than a few days in advance,” Richter said. “There was a lot of time feeling like, what are we doing? Why are we here? We’re not used to that.”
The only way to know how “Conan” would change was to just start doing it again, Richter said.
“Turn the camera on,” he said. “We don’t know how to do a different show, really. We’ve been doing the same thing for 25 years. It’s just us, jammed into the half-hour that was the only part of the show people really watched anyway.
To judge from his test show, O’Brien has not tampered with the “Conan” formula too drastically: It consisted of an opening monologue (with jokes about the government shutdown and the search for an Oscars host); a pretaped comedy bit; and an interview with a celebrity guest.
What excites O’Brien, and what he hopes could bring about further change, is the fact that he is free to film more than a half-hour of content every night. Whatever doesn’t go in a particular show can be posted to his website, released on any number of social media platforms or revisited in a future episode.
Between the time he finishes recording a show and when it must be transmitted to TBS’s broadcast operations in Atlanta, O’Brien said, “there’s going to be more fighting, more arguing, more second-guessing and chaos than we’ve experienced on my show in a long, long time.”
He gleefully added, “I’m all for it.”
TBS, which entered into a joint venture with O’Brien this past spring, sees financial opportunities in many of the brand extensions at “Conan,” including its live production, touring and digital marketing arms.
Reilly, the Turner executive, said, “We don’t need to have people sit on Conan’s couch, go off and do their stand-up special for someone else and succeed there. There are a lot of people who are loyal to Conan who can come on the show, on the podcast, on the tour and build their brand with our brand.”
All of these new endeavors come with risks, Reilly said. But, he added, “If Conan O’Brien was a guy that was sort of on his last eighth of a tank of gas, just coasting out gracefully, none of this would happen. Far from it. He’s got the desire to keep current and stay ahead of it.”
Though there are many things that make O’Brien anxious, he did not seem worried that his energy might someday be depleted.
As far as O’Brien is concerned, he already had his perfect TV send-off when he left “The Tonight Show,” and everything that followed was a bonus.
“Whatever time I have left making comedy, I would like to feel 100 percent engaged,” he said. “I want to feel like I’m having fun, and I want to be a little bit scared — that’s what we’re doing.”
Rather than put a timetable on the rest of his career or imagine how his time in late-night will conclude, O’Brien said, “My goal is to be a burden on my children and around a lot longer than America wants me to be.”
“I’d like there to be a national consensus that it’s time to go,” he added. “And then I want to do five more years.”