Speaking on his "Conan" stage at the Warner Bros. lot, O'Brien mused over the events that led to his TBS show, and admitted that there's still a surreal quality to where he is and how he ended up there.
"I've had some people say, 'Isn't this great, you had a year off,' but I don't remember a year that I've worked harder than this past year," he says.
That includes the emotional drain of ending his brief run on "The Tonight Show" with several episodes that many crix consider to be his creative best, followed by a nationwide stage show and then the launch of his new TBS yakker.
"Things happened awfully fast," said O'Brien, who spoke to reporters alongside longtime exec producer Jeff Ross.
O'Brien recounted how he went from his "Tonight" finale one week to meeting with his assistant at a Marie Callender's restaurant the following week.
"This was my new headquarters," he said.
The host cherished having more time to spend at home with his kids, but also itched to be "back in the harness." O'Brien said he recently saw documentary footage (shot by a friend) from that time, and can even see it on his face.
"You can see I'm determined," he said. "Very quickly the tour came up. It was not a long fallow period."
Even now, O'Brien admits that it's odd not to be an employee of NBC, where he spent most of his career. The host compared it to individuals who lose their limbs yet still experience "phantom" feelings.
"It meant a lot to me to be a part of NBC," he said. "There are times where I mourn the loss. That company meant a lot to me. (It was) 17 years I'm proud of. And I no longer see those people. Some I don't need to see again. But it's strange that I left that world and will never see it again. It's somewhat sad."
Among O'Brien's other musings:
On the crowds chanting his name every night: "There's a Stalinist feel about it," he quips. "It's fun to be Mussolini at the top of the show every night. I don't take it seriously and I certainly don't encourage it."
On the new show's creative exploration: "Part and parcel with what happened last year, I just want to go for it. I don't want to overthink things. And I've been partnered with people who have encouraged that from day one… There are a bunch of things that we wouldn't have conceived of doing a year ago."
On attracting a young demo: "I have no dignity. That can slow you down with the kids… what's not changed is that people in their 20s seem excited to see me." (Ross adds that the recent full embrace of social media and digital has "aggressively paid off" for the show.)
On his new network: "TBS reached over the side and pulled us into this boat. That is something I'll be eternally grateful for."
On his recent phone call with David Letterman: "It was a quick call. We hadn't spoken in a long time, and we've always been good. I have a lot of respect for that guy. We chatted briefly about silly things. He's not a blabbermouth. It was nice to get that call. He didn't owe me a call."
On whether he'll ever want to speak with Jay Leno: "No. I don't think so. We all know the story. We all know what happened. Life is short. I've got a life to live. I don't think about it too much. I'm sure he's busy."
On his life immediately after the final "Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien": "I wasn't used to being a media story. Immediately after the final show, my wife said, let's drive to Santa Barbara and decompress for three days. We got in our car, pulled out of the house and immediately two cars followed us all the way to Santa Barbara… I'm not Brad Pitt or George Clooney, even though I've been blessed with their DNA. But that was weird."
On his beard, which he grew after "Tonight" ended because (a) he hates shaving and (b) it seemed like the thing to do : "It could go tomorrow. I'm taking it one day at a time. It could fall off tomorrow because of a lack of testosterone."