Twenty-six years after starting his late-night TV career, Conan O’Brien is ditching talk-show traditions.
The Harvard grad turned “Simpsons” writer turned talk-show host returns to TBS at 10 p.m. Tuesday after a nearly four-month break with his show in a new half-hour format.
Longtime sidekick Andy Richter remains, but O’Brien has dispatched his desk (which “feels like I’m interviewing people for a bank loan”), his suits (“I would like to dress a little the way I do in my everyday life, which is quite sexy, I assure you”) and all but one guest per night (Tom Hanks on tap for the opener).
It makes sense, as he now has to shoehorn his weirdly wonderful brand of absurdist self-abasement comedy into 21 minutes, give or take.
“That’s what I’m telling the people who used to be second guests,” he says. “’I love you, man, but no time.’ I used to have a large Victorian home that a lot of guests would come and crash in, and now I’ve moved with Andy into a small sleek condo, and we can only accommodate one guest.”
But look for him to get out into the world with more remote segments, interacting with everyday people as he does in his three annual world-travel specials (his favorites include trips to Cuba, South Korea and Armenia).
In a larger sense, “what I’m trying to do is hang on to all the things that I think we do well, and remove some of the stuff that was making me feel like, ‘Why are we still doing this?’ especially in an era, at last count, of 135 late-night talk shows. Shaking it up like this felt necessary.”
O’Brien, 55, has been busy with other projects. He’s just back from a tour with standup comics. And in November he started a podcast, “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” which he finds exhilarating.
“I am a curious person,” he says, and with two mics and no cameras, “people get very relaxed, and we have a completely different conversation than you can have on an hour show.
“There’s something about taking the cameras away that is fascinating. I really enjoy it.”
He hopes to blend some of that flavor into his TV show, even just the parts that run on his Team Coco site or YouTube.
“With big-name guests, I’ll be talking to them much longer, and that’ll be what runs online,” O’Brien said. “There’s a chance to improvise and play around with the form and explore what works. I want to change things to make them fit my personality more completely and be more unique to me. Especially at this stage of my career, why not? We will undoubtedly hit some snags here and there, but I’ll take that over being afraid to try.”
He says he has a four-year commitment from Turner, a sharp contrast from his early days at NBC’s “Late Night,” and his short-lived stint as host of “The Tonight Show.”
“I was once on seven-minute contracts with NBC,” he said (we think it’s a joke). “My agent bought an egg timer and he used to flip it, and when the sand ran out he used to call to see if I still had a job.”
The new show will feel different, but it’s not a radical shift. And “if people don’t like this, we can switch over to a game-show format, which Richter wants to do anyway,” he said. “I just hope they laugh. That’s always the job, that’s always the gig, and it will never change.”