Conan O'Brien Takes on the City of Angels
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It’s a new dawn for The Tonight Show. As Jay Leno steps away from the venerable NBC institution to helm a new show (airing an hour and a half earlier), Conan O’Brien has taken up the auspicious mantle, and all eyes are watching. The riotously funny redhead from Brookline, Massachusetts—who first found success as a writer for Saturday Night Live, Not Necessarily the News and The Simpsons—has become a legend in his own right, hosting Late Night with Conan O’Brien for almost 16 years and sending legions of Americans off to sleep with a laugh. Humbled by the honor of taking over The Tonight Show, O’Brien has moved to LA with his wife, Liza, and their two children, Neve and Beckett, and hit the ground running on creating a shiny new version of the program. We caught up with him in the days before he stepped into his new role.
LOS ANGELES CONFIDENTIAL: Conan! You’ve been associated with New York for so long—the Big Apple’s loss is LA’s gain.
CONAN O’BRIEN: I think I was adopted by New York. Growing up in Boston, I was afraid of New York. I was a Red Sox fan, and I heard from the kids on the playground that New Yorkers would beat you to death if you wore a Red Sox cap— which I came to find was true.
LAC: You’ve officially made the move to LA. That can be a difficult transition.
CO: People say that. I first lived in LA in ’85, and when you first get here you bitch and moan because it’s not exactly how you grew up on the East Coast. You run through lines from Woody Allen movies about the lack of culture. Then you’re here for a while and you’re like, Wait, there is culture here. There’s a rhythm here, and you just have to get into it.
LAC: You’re very fair-skinned. How’s the sun treating you?
CO: I actually think I am getting a base tan. I’m taking it very slow. Right now I’m kind of a faint yellow. It may be a tan, or I may have advanced liver failure.
LAC: Do you know a lot of people here or is it lonely?
CO: I’m lucky; a lot of the friends I made back in the day stayed here. Also, I pretend that every celebrity I see is a friend by default. Well, maybe not Brad Pitt. I probably won’t show up at his doorstep and say, “BP! Let’s grab some huevos!”
LAC: Have you had any fun celeb run-ins?
CO: I’m really enjoying watching very famous people perform mundane tasks. It’s just funny to see Kate Capshaw at the Jiffy Lube. Nothing brings a big celebrity down to size like watching them stuff grapes into a bag at Whole Foods.
LAC: It’s a real cult of personality out here.
CO: I thought celebrity would mean less here than in New York, but in LA it’s a much bigger deal. The other day I was at a stoplight and these girls were reading this big map of the stars’ homes. I wanted to bang my head on the window and say, “I’m right here!” I’m definitely getting photographed a lot. Everywhere there’s a video camera or a long lens. It’s almost amusing—[a photo of] me holding a cup of gelato can’t be worth any money.
LAC: I’d pay big bucks to see that. So, even though you’re a talk-show pro, The Tonight Show must feel like a big undertaking.
CO: What always helps me is to stick to the work. Hosting the show after Steve Allen and Jack Paar and Johnny Carson and Jay Leno—you can get lost thinking about it. I have to remind myself to just make a funny TV show. But I take the job of hosting The Tonight Show very seriously. It feels like a public trust. I want to take good care of it but have a lot of fun, too. It’s not like I want to drive it at 25 miles per hour and then put it back in the garage. I want to put a dent in the right rear fender of The Tonight Show.
photograph by NBC Photo: Mitchell Haaseth;photograph by Mitchell Haaseth, Stephen Colbert and O’Brien
performing an In the Year 2000 skit; photograph by Dana Edelson /NBC (2000 SKIT)
LAC celebrates the women of its May/June 2013 issue at Palihouse in West Hollywood.