Hop into bed together for a photo shoot? No problem. Conan O’Brien and Andy Cohen were game for anything on a sunny mid-May day in Gotham when they came together for a meeting of latenight minds. As they engaged in conversation, the hosts of TBS’ “Conan” and Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live” were wonderfully silly but also thoughtful about the nature of their shows and the challenges of making it work night after night.
Variety: I’d like you two to compare notes: What is your favorite part of the job and what is your least favorite part?
Conan O’Brien: It’s the yin-yang of it. My favorite part of the job is that we do one every day, and my least favorite part of the job is that we do one every day. … It’s like magnets that are constantly attracted and repelled from each other. Going in every day is fantastic. You get this fresh shot, you can redefine your job every day. And then there are days when I’m talking to actors and they’re telling me about going to shoot a movie and then getting six weeks off. And I’m thinking, what am I doing, I’m chained to my desk. You get this wanderlust. I want to get the hell out of there (sometimes) but I think if you sent me to Prague for three months I would build a talkshow desk and start calling the Wayans brothers and say ‘Get in here.’ ”
Andy Cohen: My favorite part is being live. I love the moment right when it starts because it’s the land of possibility. You feel like this is going to be great. Usually when you think it’s going to be a horrible show is when it winds up being good. And then my least favorite part — the hardest part is — I don’t like the idea that I know where I need to be every night around 10 p.m. So that’s kind of irritating. And I always get bugged when whoever is on the show doesn’t play, or isn’t up for it. I just feel like I’m going down. That’s never a great feeling.
O’Brien: This is part of the machine — there’s a flaw in the machine which is that we rely on guests. The flaw is sometimes people who are sent to be guests are doing that job because they’re incredible in front of the camera in a very specific way. But that in no way means they also have the gene for “Hey, what’s going on? Hey, where’d you get that suit?” They don’t have the gift of the gab so what happens is they’re being sent out there in front of an audience and it’s bread that just doesn’t rise.
Cohen: What I love about being live is we work with Twitter a lot and we’re calling for questions all the time on Twitter. When the guest is tanking, people on Twitter will turn on the guest immediately. And then someone in my ear will say, “Everyone is hating this person” and I’m like, “Oh, great.”
O’Brien: Yeah, that’s not the best time to hear that.
Cohen: I hate that.
(Dustin Askland for Variety)
Variety: How much can you book the show to feature people you are really interested in, and how much do you have to book it to feed the machine Conan mentioned?
Cohen: It’s interesting. I really wanted to do a “Good Times” reunion on my show. Esther Rolle, God rest her soul, is dead, but the others are alive. These kids (on staff) came up to me and said, “Well, we got the guy who played J.J. but you don’t want the woman who played Willona, do you?” And I’m like, “Yes, I want her!”
O’Brien: Who was the maintenance guy who would come by all the time?
Cohen: Oh yeah. It wasn’t Freeman, it was … hold on … Bookman! Mr. Bookman.
O’Brien: Yes! Bookman. You gotta have Mr. Bookman.
Cohen: Anyway, as I was talking to the staff I realized no one in the room was interested in this “Good Times” reunion but me. I felt like, maybe I need to give this up.
O’Brien: Well, thanks for the idea. You can come and be a guest on my “Good Times” reunion.
Cohen: You’ll get a huge number for it whereas I would have gotten nothing.
O’Brien: There’s art meets commerce. Art would be, I do the show four times a year and everything in it is exactly the way I want it to be. But the truth is if you gave me that kind of power I would probably never do a show. Commerce is we need one of these every day. They need 185 a year, and that’s the deal and you need to make this much sausage. Then it’s the lifelong struggle of how can we get as much of what we want into what is almost a factory. How can we make this part salon and also have it satisfy the marketplace?
Cohen: That’s the machine, as you say.
O’Brien: I’m just always going for the moment. You were talking about the moment earlier. We’re all just sharks for the moment. Sometimes you’re having a show that feels very mundane, nothing’s really happening, but then something starts, you pick up on a current, someone starts to say something they shouldn’t, you jump in and it’s the loudest laughs you’ve heard in recent memory. And then your adrenaline’s going, you’re filled with joy, this is exactly why God put me on this earth. In this moment, it’s fantastic, and then you’re done. One of those can sustain you for days. … When I was much younger I used to live and die by every show. Live and die by every show. If the show wasn’t good I would become morose.
Cohen: How fun for everyone around you.
O’Brien: It was awful all around. I got older and wiser and remembered that thing that Johnny Carson’s producer, Fred de Cordova said. He said, “It’s never as good as you think, and never as bad as you think.”
Cohen: What I loved about your show from the start was that you deconstructed the whole idea of what a latenight talkshow was.
O’Brien: I’ll give that to (David Letterman). The latenight comedy talkshow was a certain thing for 25 years and then Dave reinvented it. When I came along 11 years after Dave started, I was trying to reinvent Dave’s reinvention, which was to take the spirit of what Dave was doing, and a little bit of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and add really good improvisation actors. So we used Amy Poehler instead of Larry “Bud” Melman. Now the whole (latenight landscape) has broken down into 75 different — it’s like “Game of Thrones” now with different realms. There’s an endless number of comedy realms. Maybe I’m the Lannisters, I don’t know.
(Dustin Askland for Variety)
Variety: Have the changes in the way people watch television these days — on their own timetables and often in clip bites — changed the way you produce your shows?
O’Brien: People can find the thing that’s just right for them now. We have a culture and technology now that allows this. I did a bit where I went to an American Girl store, picked out my own doll, took it to lunch, drank a lot of white wine and behaved like a mad man. So now I’ve made this thing and a woman who sees it and likes it blasts it out (via social media) and the next thing you know, it’s everywhere. I’ve had more 45-year-old moms come up to me and say, “I didn’t know that much about you before, but that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.” Now we have a system that delivers the perfect bit to the perfect people. That didn’t exist three years ago. That’s not bad.
Cohen: We try to make it a play-at-home experience so there’s no way you can’t touch us while you’re watching us. We do polls saying to people, “What do you want to see?” It’s so great because we can very quickly determine what people want to hear from the guest and what they have no interest in. … I also want to confirm that I went to the American Girl store last week with my sister and niece, and it was truly the nadir of my year.
Variety: You both took unusual paths to becoming latenight hosts. How does your past job experience influence what you bring to the table as a host?
Cohen: I started at CBS News and I was there for 10 years. … I was in a live control room for eight of my 10 years at CBS. I love live TV. It didn’t scare me. I really learned how to be a good producer. I’m a very active producer of my show.
O’Brien: My first memories are of trying to make people laugh. When you’re a kid you assess pretty quickly what your skill set is. You go, “I’m terrible at this, this, this, this, this, this and this. … Hey, wait a minute, I seem to be able to make people laugh.” I started writing comedy at a relatively early age. I went to Harvard and accidentally fell into the comedy magazine and that became my life. It was like a duck finding water. … When I was writing for other people on “Saturday Night Live,” I never thought I could be Dana Carvey or Jon Lovitz. I knew I had something to offer, I just didn’t know what it was.
Variety: Do you think intense media coverage of latenight personalities and the competition among shows is good for business? Does that make more people pay attention to the shows overall?
O’Brien: To me it just feels like there’s more noise about everything now. There’s been noise about latenight ever since I can remember. When I got into it, it was Jay (Leno) and Dave — that was treated like the Cold War for a while. That was a ton of noise. Now I think there’s so much noise that it all goes away.
Cohen: It all negates itself. When your whole (“Tonight Show”) mishegoss happened …
O’Brien: Yes, that’s what we called it. It’s an old Celtic term.
Cohen: It was the mishegoss of 200 … 6?
Cohen: It’s interesting because of how much noise there was about that. And there are even more outlets now than there were then.
O’Brien: We’re now at the lifecycle of a fruit fly. The technology changes, but the thing that doesn’t change is people doing the work and having a connection with people who enjoy that work. So tune everything else out, do your thing and make it the best you can. Evolve it, grow it and make that connection with people. Do it as long as it means something to you, and the minute it doesn’t mean anything to you, go away. My plan is that the minute it doesn’t mean anything to me anymore is to do it for six more years for the cash and then get out.
Cohen: I’m glad you wound up on an up note. Wait — I have one last question for you.
O’Brien: We should do an episode of my show where you’re in my ear … and an episode of your show where I’m in your ear.
Cohen: I like it. I wanted to ask you: I’m really bad with faces and names. You’ve done this for 21 years, you’ve had thousands of people on your shows. When you’re out and about and people come up to you, how many of them do you recognize?
O’Brien: I have two tips for being in show business. Always tip at least 15%, preferably 20 or you’ll read about it somewhere. The other tip is never say, “It’s nice to meet you.” Say “It’s good to see you.” I could be in the Chilean mountains hiking and stumble upon an old swami. I’d say, “It’s really good to see you” because if I say, “It’s good to
meet you” he’ll say, “You fucking asshole. I was in your audience and you said hello to me in 1994.”
Cohen: Right. “Good to see you.”
O’Brien: Right, and keep them talking until they tell you who they are.
Cohen: Well, it was good to see you, Conan.
(Photos by Dustin Askland for Variety – photographed at the Gramercy Park Hotel)