As several of his competitors headed to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention this week, Conan O’Brien went the other direction.
O’Brien is back at San Diego Comic-Con to tape episodes of his TBS talk show this Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. It’s the second year in a row for “Conan” at the city’s historic Spreckles Theater, and the host told IndieWire he’s much happier to be here.
“Last year was such an instant realization that this is perfect for us,” he said. “There’s an overlap between our fans and people who would be here anyway at Comic-Con. We’ve been referencing these comic myths for the entire time that I’ve been on television. Even my whole look is comic book-y. I’ve always looked like I’ve been animated!”
O’Brien’s Comic-Con guests this year include the “Silicon Valley” cast, “Weird Al” Yankovic, the stars of “Suicide Squad” (including Will Smith, Margot Robbie and Jared Leto) and much of the “Game of Thrones” ensemble. He’ll also step foot inside the San Diego Convention Center on Friday to appear on the panel for TBS’ “People of Earth,” which he executive produces.
We caught up with O’Brien as he was rehearsing at the Spreckles (“It’s got this old-timey feel to it,” he enthused about the old vaudeville theatre) and had a conversation about the ‘Con, the evolution of his TBS show, why his Bernie Sanders jokes didn’t go over so well and the challenges of being funny in the face of so much recent bad news.
What made you decide to come back to Comic-Con for a second year in a row?
We got down here last year and couldn’t believe we had never done it before. It was such a fun experience that before the week was out, we got the theater for the following year. We made that decision last year to keep it going. It’s such a great fit for us. It gets us this whole world to play with, the comic book world and all the tropes and all the clichés.
You’re also counterprogramming some of your competitors, who are focusing on the Republican convention this week.
Especially this week, we’re feeling good about being down here. I watched the Republican convention last night and I don’t even know how I would do comedy about that. I don’t know what the comedic take on Trump’s entrance would be. There are so many really good people commenting on it, I’m happy to be in this world.
You’re getting to do something different from everyone else this week.
It really just lined up nicely. Because I’ve always felt most comfortable being silly, just out and out silly. We’ve made some pieces that we’re really proud of. Last year we went all out and did a “Mad Max”-like open, where I was the guy with the flaming guitar in front, traveling to San Diego. We’ve made one or two pieces like that [this year], which gives us a chance to go get a film crew and shoot these [segments] like mini-movies. We’ve got a bunch of surprises this year, things we learned from last year.
What did you do differently this year?
We started our prep earlier. We wanted to something involving a special effects company, making something for me that took a long time – but we started it quite a while ago. I think it will be extremely impressive, and something I want to keep for the rest of my life. This year it felt like we got more of a head of steam than last year.
You’ve taken the show on the road recently to Cuba, Korea, Armenia and other places. How have you liked changing things up?
Sometimes I watch a show travel and I see they’re just doing their same show in a different location. My aim has always been that our DNA changes when we go some place. We are transformed by the situation we’re in. So our show becomes transformed by Comic-Con when we’re down here.
Have these trips changed the way you host?
It’s been about 23 years now that I’ve been doing the TV show, and I was in comedy as a writer/producer seven years before that. So it’s starting to add up. One of the things I’ve found is over time, any way you can make it new for yourself is key. That’s what has been so great. It started with Cuba, and then after that Armenia and Korea. We went to Qatar and shot a show there with the troops. And they’re adventures. I feel like a 22-year-old kid again. I love the challenge of getting outside. I’m a reactive comic so I love getting into situations where I have to react honestly and try to make something funny happen. There’s a temptation, ‘We’ve got a good gig, I could probably just show up and we could just coast along and I could do another eight years.’ I never really wanted to do that.
When I was coming along in 1993, the job was to become a classic host in the Carson style. It’s a format that I still really love, but the downside is you can feel chained to your desk. Now I get the best of both worlds.
It seems like Turner has been encouraging you to do more of this as well.
Whenever we say, “Hey, we like doing X,” they say, “Why don’t you do two X?” Their formula is to do more of it.
Does it also feel like TBS’ evolution, adding shows like “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” and “Angie Tribeca,” better fits your show too?
There’s been a very nice evolution. It’s been great to have them bring in shows. Getting Samantha Bee on the network has been huge. Just knowing that she’s part of our lineup. When we first got here it was great because we needed a place to restock and reform, and Turner has been amazing. It felt like in the last couple of years they’ve started to move more in this direction of building.
It’s been a really tough period in the news. As a comedian hosting a late-night show, how do you navigate that?
For me personally, I think you have to make the judgment call yourself. It has to be very personal, how you respond to some of these terrible things in the news. I like to think my sense of humor is very personal. How I respond to something like that has to come from how I feel about it. I always try to walk the line. I like to be an entertainer. I think my job is to make people laugh. And so when something terrible happens in the news, we try to judge: Is there a way we can acknowledge this in a way that’s humane and real? Acknowledge the elephant in the room and let people know that we’re not oblivious to it, and then move on from there to doing what we do, which is to be silly and light?
You take it case by case. There have been nights over the years, whether it’s the first show back from 9/11 or after Orlando, where I come out and I don’t tell a monologue. I just take that time to acknowledge what has happened and then move us on to the business of entertainment. My assumption has always been, if someone watching is not in the mood to be entertained, they’re probably not watching anyway. Or they have the right to turn the channel. I completely respect that.
It’s a very personal decision and something I spend the day thinking about, and it can sometimes change throughout the day. If something happens in the morning and you don’t feel the magnitude of it but by the time you tape you feel that you can’t go out there and start with “How about that Donald Trump, isn’t he wacky!” That feels false to me. If that’s how I’m feeling, we’ll switch it up.
Is it more difficult to tell jokes now, given how divided this country is?
Most audiences who attend the show have pre-selected. You think about talk show audiences, the hosts usually know who’s in their audience. You know what kind of reaction you’re going to get. It’s not a swing in the dark. And sometimes an audience will instruct you.
We get a pretty young crowd and early on they were pretty pro-Bernie. Every time I would tell a joke about Bernie Sanders they’d get really pissed. That instructed me early on, I think I knew before a lot of my friends did, that people were really into him. I was being informed by my audience. The bigger problem in this country is when everyone is just preaching to the choir. Every host has their audience. Sometimes I’m in my car and as sport I jump between MSNBC and Fox News on satellite radio and you’ll see that they’re not talking to the same people. That I find, at the risk of getting serious, disheartening. Because I’m not an out-and-out political comedian and I’ve never thought of myself as one. I admire people who do it well because it’s never been my thing.
My hope has always been that it’s a search for things that are just funny, and then cross over. So that however you’re voting in November, you might agree that that stupid thing I just did was funny. That’s been my religious take on comedy.
But yes, there are days where you say how you feel about things. I’m sure I probably lost some people after Orlando, when I said how I felt about people having semi-automatic weapons and how that made no sense to me. I’m sure there’s a lot of people in this country who thought, “screw you, pal.” But at a certain point you just don’t care.
Do you ever think back to your famous “The Simpsons” episode “Marge vs. the Monorail” and how timely it feels? People want to believe certain things even if it’s counter to their best interests.
There were two inspirations for that. I always loved goofy visions of the future from the 1960s. When I was a kid they were always telling us that “the Monorail was going to be the way.” And I was a lifelong fan of the Music Man. So it was those two ideas of this cheesy vision of the future and someone coming to town and getting people to believe what they wanted to believe. Which is so much what is happening right now. Someone is telling them that all their problems will be solved if they get a Monorail, which they can’t afford. And no one cares how they’re going to pay for it and they don’t even need it. People still come up to me and talk about the Monorail episode. It’s like this little insect trapped in amber, it’s not going anywhere.
And now just replace “building a monorail” with “building a wall.”
Exactly. Who knew!