When then-Turner Entertainment president Steve Koonin pitched Conan O’Brien on launching a show at TBS, he was upfront with the host: We won’t be able to deliver you an audience as big as the one you had at NBC. But you can do whatever you want.
“He was true to his word,” said “Conan” executive producer Jeff Ross. “Also about the audience. But at least he said it up front: This network can’t deliver you the audience that a network can. But ‘you can come here and it’s your playpen, and we’ll leave you alone.’ And they did. And to this day they have, even after Steve left [in 2014].”
It’s been more than a decade since O’Brien exited NBC and “The Tonight Show” after the network pushed him aside to bring back Jay Leno in the coveted 11:35 p.m. slot. O’Brien and his team launched “Conan” on TBS in November 2010, evolving the show and its format over the past 11 years just as the entire TV landscape — including late night — dramatically changed.
“The actual ratings in this late-night game are less relevant than they’ve ever been,” said Ross, noting how much of the viewership is now online. As proof of that, a clip of Paul Rudd from Monday’s “Conan” — pulling off a prank he’s been doing for decades, where he surprises O’Brien with a clip from the movie “Mac and Me” — has already hit 1.6 million views on YouTube.
“That’s what we do,” Ross said of that running Rudd gag. “Goofy.”
Now, as O’Brien wraps his TBS talk show on Thursday — effectively ending an unprecedented 28-year run in late night — his long-time executive producer is feeling nostalgic.
An HBO Max show is on the horizon — more on that in a moment — but for now, Ross, who has been with O’Brien since “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” launched in 1993, has been taking a deep trip down memory lane in recent weeks. As he prepared clips and packages for these final weeks of shows, he told Variety that while it’s been melancholy, it’s also given him even more appreciation for they work they’ve done.
“We spent the last like two, three weeks looking at all the stuff in the last 11 years,” he said. “And I have to say that when you look at it, because you don’t remember half of it, I am personally proud that we made so much funny stuff. Especially when you’re in the day-to-day volume business.”
Ross spent most of the time focused on the more than a decade of “Conan” at TBS, and both O’Brien and his show have evolved quite a bit in the social media age compared to the NBC days. That began almost immediately after “Tonight” ended and O’Brien went on his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” comedy tour. “Team Coco,” which began as a fan campaign to protest O’Brien’s treatment by NBC, became a banner for O’Brien’s growing online and events presence.
“When we realized that we weren’t going to be able to get that kind of audience at TBS, we doubled down on it,” Ross said. “So then we started saying, ‘OK, what kind of stuff can we do?’ Comic-Con came up. Somebody said to do the show at Comic-Con and we were like, perfect. So we went down there and we figured out a way to create a lot of viral stuff down there.”
Meanwhile, the “Conan Without Borders” travel series came about when, on a lark, O’Brien and team traveled to Havana after President Obama began opening up relations with Cuba.
“We just went, we weren’t sure it was going to be a segment on the show or what it was, and we went up spending a week there and we made it a whole show,” Ross said. “That’s how the Without Borders travel shows came about. Those clips do really well on YouTube, and Turner realized that it was valuable. So they said, do three, four of them a year or as many as you can.”
Most recently, O’Brien has been building up his podcast presence, including his flagship “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” show.
“We like to work,” Ross said of the expanded empire. “We’re like a little boutique media business, and we were ramping up a live part of our business. Making specials and doing live shows. So the world will keep going, that sort of has a life of its own. The focus is going to be what’s the new TV show. When can we start doing ‘Conan Without Borders’ again. There’s a lot on our plate to keep us busy.”
But despite these changes and new platforms, Ross said O’Brien’s comedic sensibility hadn’t changed: “The same effort to try to come up with the funniest, different kind of comedy that we always tried to do, since 1993. And do something original.”
And even as late night gravitated toward more political humor, particularly during the Trump years, Ross said “that is not the kind of comedy that he wants to make. He respects a lot of the people who do it. But that was never his thing, and that’s the real reason he didn’t go in that direction. When you look at all the stuff we did, that’s evergreen and could live on forever … It was funny nine years ago and it was funny last night.”
“Conan” has been running packages in recent days compiling some of the TBS show’s best moments, and more will be posted online as web exclusives. Ross said his favorite moments have been the clips of O’Brien interacting with people, such as his ride along with Kevin Hart and Ice Cube, or when he teases staffer Jordan Schlansky.
According to Ross, staffers including Mike Sweeney have been racing to finish the montages together to get them all done by the finale: “This remote the Conan did with the Tom Cruise in London, where he thinks he’s going to promote his movie and he gets in the car, and Conan says, ‘we’re just going to drive.’ And it’s eight minutes of that and it’s hilarious. I look at that and I go, ‘who does that?’”
Ross said re-watching the clips also reminded him of the brilliance of O’Brien’s longtime sidekick, Andy Richter. “We showed a montage of Andy stuff over the last 11 years the other night,” he said, “and he is a fucking funny guy. He’s done a good amount of quality stuff, and that just hit me when we watched his montage.”
Winding down with a week full of surprises — including a moment on Tuesday where O’Brien smoked a joint on stage with Seth Rogen — Thursday’s finale episode will feature Jack Black as final guest. But Ross said there might not be as much pomp and circumstance this time: “The problem is, this time we were like, ‘we can’t have another big finale because we’ve already had two big finales [with ‘Late Night’ and ‘Tonight’]. And we’re not getting out of the business, because we’re going to do something else, we don’t know what it is yet, but we’re going to do something else. But what we’re saying goodbye to is the everyday thing. That we’re done with.”
At the very least, the show is ending with an audience inside the Largo at the Coronet Theatre, where “Conan” moved last year during the pandemic. “We were doing it so long, like a year, with no audiences,” Ross said. “For the first month it was kind of interesting and then you were like, ‘OK, we need an audience.’ Just the energy it brings into it is night and day.”
“Conan” had been based on the Warner Bros. lot for most of its run, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the show moved to a remote shoot — first from home, and later, from the Largo. (“Conan” officially moved out of its Warner Bros. studio and offices at the end of 2020.)
“Conan’s always had an attachment to the Largo,” Ross said. “A lot of the live appearances he’s made in LA in the last couple of years has been there and he always loved playing there. It was really nice to try to keep the lights on there as best we could, and help them out.”
Next up, Ross and O’Brien will take a breather before sitting down and mapping out just what the HBO Max show will be. The streamer is expecting something in 2022, so they have time to figure it out.
“We don’t really know what the show is yet,” Ross said. “We know it has to be something different. We don’t know how often, how many we’ll make yet and we’re still in those conversations. But those guys have been great also, they’re like just, ‘what do you want to do?’ And we’re trying to figure it out.”
Ross admitted it will take time to get used to getting out of the habit of planning for a daily show. And while he’s happy to leave that grind, he’s taking a moment to appreciate all that hard work.
“Of course, you know you’re in the volume business, they’re not all gems,” he said. “But the amount of stuff that we did in 11 years that’s so fucking funny, and of quality, that’s hard to do when you’re doing it every day. I was touched. I was proud to be a part of it.”
(Pictured: Conan O’Brien and Jeff Ross)