Amid the fevered speculation as to which network Conan O'Brien would jump to following his acrimonious split with NBC, the late-night host briefly considered shocking everyone and picking no network at all.
"There was a period after all this happened where it's like you're in a big car accident. Your first thought is not to jump right back into another car," he says, speaking from the Los Angeles studio where he's prepping "Conan" for its Monday, Nov. 8, debut on TBS.
"But I found myself realizing -- and my wife was the one who really pointed it out -- 'This is what you do. You're driving all of us crazy. You're doing a show in the house.' My first tweet about doing a show with a squirrel, interviewing a squirrel and throwing to commercial that was real. I had done thousands of hours of this kind of television, and suddenly I was in my house growing a beard. It was a very strange feeling, and it put me in touch with (the fact that) I'm lucky to get to do this. I love to do it. I think I have more to offer. As soon as I realize I have no more to offer, I'll do six more years and get out."
He's able to joke about it now -- not that he wasn't then, as the last few weeks of his brief stint as host of "The Tonight Show" attest. O'Brien ran out the clock with nightly jabs at the network that promised him the gig way back in 2004 -- essentially giving Jay Leno a five-year send-off -- only to call an audible seven months into his tenure. After failing in its initial effort to keep Leno in the family, with the ratings disaster that was "The Jay Leno Show," NBC asked O'Brien to move his time slot back a half-hour to accommodate Leno's return. O'Brien balked at the idea, saying at the time that he had too much respect for "The Tonight Show" brand, and for new "Late Night" host Jimmy Fallon, to make such a drastic change.
His principled stand won him vocal support from an ever-growing number of fans in the real and virtual worlds who took on the name Team Coco, based on a moniker offhandedly bestowed upon him by Tom Hanks. He forged an identity on Twitter, where he currently has more than 1.7 million followers, and played to packed houses on the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, which poked fun at his speak-no-evil contractual settlement with NBC. All of this has riled up his fan base in anticipation for his new late-night show.
Just like he planned it, right?
"I went on Twitter because I really had no choice," he says. "There was no other way that I could reach out to people and do my thing. That was improvised, but I started to realize, 'Wait a minute; this is a really good joke format.' It's almost like a haiku. You're very much limited, but you can have an impact, your personality can actually shine through a little bit, if you think about them for more than five minutes."
The quippy tweets and the tour's anything-goes atmosphere will influence the new show, which O'Brien says will be "a happening," and has given him a refreshed vigor toward his craft.
"I loved doing 'Late Night,' I loved doing 'The Tonight Show,' and that's always felt like a great format for me for what I like to do, which is just to play," he says. "That's what I said on one of the last 'Tonight' shows: 'Let's just have fun on television.' Let's forget all this drama and craziness and hyperbole and remember that I like having fun on television. That's the only thing I've ever wanted to do, and I think that's what pulled me back into this."
So with all the hype, the goodwill and the complete absence of the Leno factor, "Conan" could feel like a slam-dunk. But the 16-year talk show vet -- who faced skepticism as an unknown in 1993 when he took over "Late Night," and then made critics doubt that his absurdist humor would translate to "The Tonight Show" -- isn't taking anything for granted.
"Look, I'd love to say, 'Yep, it's all going to be great.' (But) I've been through too much in the last nine months to be able to just say that," he says. "I can promise you we're going to hit our bumps creatively. We're not going to debut with a perfect product. We're going to have to find it, but I do think there's a great spirit to this new project that feels like the same spirit we brought to the tour, and I think that could be really interesting on television. I'm very much excited about it."