Watching the classy late-night transition from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman to Stephen Colbert, it is hard not to feel a little badly for Conan O’Brien and the way he was set on fire several years ago when Leno grudgingly handed off the Tonight Show torch to him — and then refused to go away. NBC’s unwillingness to commit to O’Brien despite his lengthy tenure in the 12:30 slot created the biggest bungle in late-night history. A large financial settlement didn’t ease the sting of O’Brien realizing his dream of filling the seat once occupied by his idol Johnny Carson, only to lose it seven months later. O’Brien’s long past that, now, and comfortable and confident in his 11 PM slot at TBS with a show as strong in quality viral video bits as Fallon’s and Jimmy Kimmel’s, and a mischievous spirit that seemed to have gone missing when O’Brien tried catering to the masses from that cavernous Tonight Show set. His show is as sharp now as any time since the lanky redhead came from The Simpsons writers room to NBC in 1993 and honed his distinctive, self-deprecating style for the college and insomniac crowd. Here, O’Brien talks about his place in the shifting late-night landscape, and how social media has played to his strength.
DEADLINE: Your TBS show recaptured something lost during the Tonight Show stint, that “I can’t believe we’re getting away with this, don’t tell the grown-ups” vibe. What’s the biggest difference between the show you do now and the one you did for so long at NBC?
CONAN O’BRIEN: The biggest difference is how much social media has changed the DNA of what I do. I came up in the old system 21 years ago, when Carson had just retired and there were only a couple of us doing this. It felt then like I was the awkward kid in the tree house, looking down on the adults. When we started the show at TBS, I had to jump into social media overnight. I didn’t even have a Twitter account, but it was so important in launching my national tour and how I stayed alive during that down period after The Tonight Show. (more…)