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For O’Brien, denial works

Ten years ago, he fearlessly stepped into Letterman’s shoes
/ Source: The Associated Press

Denial. It’s worked for Conan O’Brien before, so why not try it again? He didn’t really know what he was getting into replacing David Letterman on NBC’s “Late Night,” and he’s not trembling about becoming a dad for the first time at age 40. His wife, Liza, is expecting in October.

“PEOPLE ARE QUITE negative about the word ‘denial’ and I say, ‘What are you talking about?”’ he said. “It’s gotten me a career in show business and it’s getting me into fatherhood.”

This is shaping up as a memorable fall for O’Brien. In addition to impending parenthood — and a fitful baby will undoubtedly give him the chance to watch himself on TV more often at 12:35 a.m. — “Late Night” is up for its first Emmy Award as best comedy or variety series.

On Sept. 14, NBC is also celebrating the 10th anniversary of O’Brien as host with a 90-minute prime-time special, taped before an audience at New York’s Beacon Theater.

O’Brien is part of the comedy establishment now — Interview magazine says he’s “arguably the funniest man on television.” His rocky first months after Letterman left for CBS are ancient television history.

“Late Night” combines traditional talk show elements with the kind of surreal moments that a young, after-midnight audience loves. He’s created memorable characters and moments, like Triumph, the insult comic dog, Robert Smigel’s absurdist “interviews” with world figures and an entire episode painstakingly recreated in claymation.

Thanks to reruns on Comedy Central, viewers who keep normal hours can also follow the show.

O’Brien can tell the difference by who accosts him on the street.

“Twelve-year-old kids get excited to see me,” he said. “Twelve-year-old kids didn’t used to know who I was because they weren’t up at 12:30, unless there’s something really wrong in the house.”


His anniversary show will be packed with highlights and visits from Jack Black and Will Ferrell. But it’s more intriguing now to consider his future instead of his past.

He’s almost certainly ready for an earlier time slot, but his path is blocked at NBC by Jay Leno.

The politically adept O’Brien has likened lusting after an 11:35 p.m. time slot to aspiring to be pope.

“It’s not up to me,” he said. “There’s someone who’s doing it now who’s doing it well and it’s a success. If, at some point, Jay said, ‘I think I’ve done this long enough and I’m ready to step down’ and they asked me to do it, it would be a thrilling opportunity. But there’s so much serendipity in the thing.”

The workaholic Leno, 53, didn’t even allow a guest host for a decade until he was persuaded to switch jobs for a day with Katie Couric. The likelihood of him leaving any time soon seems remote.

Letterman, 56, has suffered health problems in recent years and may be weary of being beaten in the ratings by a “Tonight” show many consider inferior to his.

O’Brien, whose current contract has more than two years to go, replaced Letterman once. Could he do it again?

“The timing would have to work out,” he said. “Why would anyone assume that Dave would call me and say, ‘I’m thinking of stepping down, you might not want to sign your next contract.’ It may get very interesting in two years and then it may not.”

Fox came courting O’Brien before he signed his latest NBC deal and was rebuffed, even though it offered an earlier time slot. He has no regrets. He’ll be near his 13th season when his deal ends.

“Letterman was here for 11 years,” he said. “If it ended there, that would be a nice end to the story — ‘No one thought he would last a week and he did it longer than Dave.”’


NBC has been happy with his show for the past seven years and has given him creative control, he said.

A danger inherent in his time slot — where the audience by nature of the hour is often half O’Brien’s age — is aging beyond that fan base.

“I still think I come across as a young person, but can you be at 12:30 when you’re 50?” he asked. “I don’t know if you can, but maybe you can.

“As long as the show is funny and I’m having a good time, it’s going to appeal to young people,” he said. “That’s my belief. I could be wrong, but I think it’s that simple. If the show becomes formulaic and all of my references are to 1998, people are going to check out.”

New writers help keep the show fresh. O’Brien also changed as a performer when his sidekick, Andy Richter, quit in 2000 (Richter will return for the anniversary show).

O’Brien dreaded the idea of trying out a replacement. The departure was like the last training wheel being removed, O’Brien said.

“I think I perform into the lens a lot now,” he said. “I used to constantly relate to Andy, which was very comfortable. Now I think I look right at the lens and I’m talking to people at home. There’s a lot more stream-of-consciousness, pure Conan.”

The show will see one homecoming soon, when bandleader Max Weinberg returns this fall after more than a year drumming behind Bruce Springsteen.

The show capitalized on Springsteen’s guilt at taking Weinberg away; the Boss’ performance with the E Street Band on “Late Night” last Christmas was one of the year’s highlights.

Springsteen insisted that O’Brien, who’s constantly strumming a guitar backstage, join him.

“The next thing I knew, I was playing in the E Street Band and I thought, ‘This is the most expensive karaoke.”’© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.