NEW YORK - "I'm someone who's very uncomfortable saying goodbye," Conan O'Brien admitted. "I tend to lie to people. I never say goodbye. I always say, 'No, I'll be back in five minutes,' and then I just scram."
The comedian will have trouble avoiding a farewell scene this afternoon, when he tapes his final show as host of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," the NBC program he has hosted for 16 seasons.
His last sign-off will trigger a shuffling in late-night television
that the comedy world has been chattering about for the last five
years, ever since NBC announced that O'Brien would succeed Jay Leno on " The Tonight Show."
After much speculation that the network would ultimately back out of
the deal, that handoff is now just months away: Leno will host his
final program on May 29 and O'Brien will take over the show June 1.
But before then, he has to wrap up his time on "Late Night," which
Jimmy Fallon begins hosting March 2. The process has triggered "a
mixture of excitement, dread and the sense that you're having a nervous
breakdown, a swirling cone of three flavors," O'Brien said in a phone
"There's an enormity to it that's very hard to process," he added. "I mean, this has been such a big part of my life."
O'Brien has spent much of the last week reflecting on his early
days at "Late Night," when the then-unknown comic and television comedy
writer took over for David Letterman after the latter defected to CBS.
In reviewing old episodes, he said there have been surprisingly few
cringe-worthy moments, other than occasionally wincing at his
appearance. Back when he met his now-wife, "she was cooking me pasta
all the time, so there was this period of time around 2000 that I sort
of started to resemble Daniel Patrick Moynihan," he quipped.
Mostly, O'Brien, a former writer and producer for " The Simpsons,"
said, "I look back on that young guy and I think, 'You have no idea
what you're in for.' I have an affection for that guy, because he's out
there and he's giving it everything he has, and so I feel like he's
naive but well-intentioned."
After a rocky start, O'Brien has held onto the top spot at 12:35 a.m.
for the last 15 seasons. But recently, CBS' Craig Ferguson has made
gains, raising questions about how O'Brien will fare with the "Tonight
Complicating matters is the fact that Leno will still be around,
hosting a nightly 10 p.m. comedy show that debuts in the fall. O'Brien
said he's not worried that it will be difficult to get out from under
"I was relieved that Jay and NBC reached an amicable arrangement," he
said. "I like Jay and we're friends and I'm happy that Jay is happy.
And on the business side of things, Jay has been a really good lead-in
for me, and I think that's going to continue to be the case."
"You know, I have this religious faith that there's something very
special about NBC at 11:30," he added. "It's been the case for 60-some
odd years, and I am a believer that there is meaning to that show and
to that time period.
As he prepares to make the move from New York to Los Angeles, O'Brien
has been pondering how to calibrate his comedy for the storied "Tonight
Show," a process he said has been assisted by watching old "Late Night"
"It puts you face to face with the biggest reality of specifically
this kind of entertainment, which is that you're always changing,"
O'Brien said. "I hate to sound like a qigong class at a spa, but you're always in the process of becoming whatever performer you're going to be.
"So it's been really healthy for me to look at all this stuff and
realize this has been a kooky journey and the 'Tonight Show' is just a
continuation. Ripping this plant out of 51st Street in Midtown
Manhattan and dropping it down in the nutrient-rich soil of Los
Angeles, it's going to change in some ways that I can't even probably
tell you right now."
Whether bits like the Masturbating Bear will accompany him to Los Angeles remain to be seen. (O'Brien noted that the last bear sketch had an "enigmatic" ending in which the animal sped off in a boat with Carrie Fisher.)
"I basically want the 'Tonight Show' to be a very powerful incentive to
think of new things," he said, adding that he thinks of the program as
"a fish-out-of-water comedy."
"I think that I'm going to be wearing a lot of floppy hats," said the
pale redhead. "We're going to have a lot of segments where a
dermatologist comes out and checks me. It will be a regular feature on
the monologue: 'Conan Gets a Cancer Screening.' "
Although "a lot of New Yorkers act like I'm being shipped off to some
remote Marine base in Guam," the Boston-bred O'Brien said he's looking
forward to the move to Los Angeles. It was there that he got his start
as a writer for HBO's "Not Necessarily the News" and began performing
at the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega Boulevard.
"I hate leaving New York City -- it's been a great home to me," he
said. "But things really did start for me in Los Angeles, and it's been
a lucky place for me. So I'm looking forward to it. And I also think
frankly if I was going to continue with television, there are a lot of
miles on my comedy odometer. We need drastic change to try and
reconceive this show in good ways, and I think putting us in Los
Angeles, on the other side of the country, a place I'm genetically not
engineered to exist in, could be just the ticket for us."