New York “I’m someone who’s very uncomfortable saying goodbye,” Conan O’Brien admitted. “I tend to lie to people. I never say goodbye. I always say, ‘No, I’ll be back in five minutes,’ and then I just scram.”
The comedian will have trouble avoiding a farewell scene Friday afternoon, when he tapes his final show as host of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” the NBC program he has hosted for 16 seasons.
O’Brien refused to divulge what he has planned for his last performance, though he did shoot down one possibility. “There is a rumor that people are going to see my naked body for the first time,” he deadpanned. “But that’s not going to happen.”
His last sign-off will trigger a shuffling in late-night television that the comedy world has been chattering about for five years, ever since NBC announced that O’Brien would succeed Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.” After much speculation that the network would ultimately back out of the deal, that handoff is now just months away: Leno will host his final program on May 29 and O’Brien will take over the show June 1.
But before then, he has to wrap up his time on “Late Night,” which Jimmy Fallon begins hosting March 2. The process has triggered “a mixture of excitement, dread and the sense that you’re having a nervous breakdown, a swirling cone of three flavors,” O’Brien said in a phone interview.
“There’s an enormity to it that’s very hard to process,” he added. “I mean, this has been such a big part of my life.”
O’Brien has spent much of the last week reflecting on his early days at “Late Night,” when the then-unknown comic and television comedy writer took over for David Letterman after the latter defected to CBS.
In reviewing old episodes, he said there have been surprisingly few cringe-worthy moments, other than occasionally wincing at his appearance. Back when he met his now-wife, “she was cooking me pasta all the time, so there was this period of time around 2000 that I sort of started to resemble Daniel Patrick Moynihan,” he quipped.
Mostly, said O’Brien, a former writer and producer for “The Simpsons,” “I look back on that young guy and I think, ‘You have no idea what you’re in for.’ I have an affection for that guy because he’s out there, and he’s giving it everything he has, and so I feel like he’s naive but well-intentioned.”
Complicating matters is the fact that Leno will still be around, hosting a nightly 9 p.m. comedy show that debuts in the fall. O’Brien said he’s not worried that it will be difficult to get out from under Leno’s shadow.
“I was relieved that Jay and NBC reached an amicable arrangement,” he said. “I like Jay, and we’re friends, and I’m happy that Jay is happy. And on the business side of things, Jay has been a really good lead-in for me, and I think that’s going to continue to be the case.”