O’Brien and Liza Powel met when she consulted on the show as an advertising professional, and they married after dating for two years—“She had the tiniest apartment on 105th Street. I thought, ‘I don’t have emotional feelings for you at all, but I feel a responsibility to get you out of this apartment.’ ” Theirs is a quiet life—a house in Connecticut, a golden retriever, a Ford Taurus. He watches TV, like I’m Alan Partridge on the BBC and MTV’s Laguna Beach (“At first I was trying to make fun of it, but then I was like, ‘Kristin is a bitch, but she’s so much more interesting than L.C.!’ ”). He and his wife take their daughter to the zoo: “At the Bronx Zoo, the animals have space, so they run and hide. It’s bullshit. In Central Park, they’re there like the rest of us, sitting in condos and flipping through magazines.”
“After sleeping with his nanny, Jude Law said, ‘I really have been in everything this year.’ ”
O’Brien doesn’t go out much, anyway. “There is this expectation that because I live in New York and broadcast out of Rockefeller Center, at night I should have a few Scotches at some cool bar, then it’s downtown for experimental theater and off to the club for saxophone, home at four in the morning for a little cocaine and off to sleep,” says O’Brien. “You know, a little bisexual relationship—‘I have my wife, but I also see Scott.’ ” Instead, he’s home after work or at least after dinner (O’Brien doesn’t watch the show at airtime, because it revs him up too much to fall asleep). “I walk the halls like Nixon with the portraits in his last days, talking to photographs,” he says. “There is nowhere to put the energy.”
Even if he didn’t have to be funny on television for an hour a night 168 times a year, O’Brien would have an enormous amount of energy. Conversation with him never stops. When the engine sputters out, he rambles. (The serious answer about his plans for the Tonight Show: “All I know is that I’m going to really think about it, and do a funny show, and it’s going to be an extension of who I am and what I’ve achieved over many years, and probably at that point will have morphed into something a little different, and whatever it is, I will do everything I can to make it good and the chips will fall where they may.”) All day long, he’s yammering away at the show’s studios as he dashes through his daily schedule: postmortems with essential staff and a writers’ meeting after the show, another writers’ meeting in the morning, perusal of monologue jokes at two, rehearsal at 2:30, makeup at four, coffee at 4:45, a run-through of the “mono” at five, audience warmup at 5:15, and—sis-boom-bah—time for the show at 5:30, the same taping time as Carson’s.
As a kid in Brookline, Massachusetts, O’Brien took tap lessons from a protégé of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and he does a little soft-shoe in the hold before he goes onstage. He crosses himself too, every time.
One of the problems of a nightly talk show is that everyone has too much to do at different times of the day, and when someone doesn’t have anything to do, he likes to distract the other people. It is 11 a.m. and Mike Sweeney, O’Brien’s head writer and quite possibly the nicest man in New York, is trying to come up with a short skit to fill two suddenly empty minutes after the monologue, and O’Brien is shooting the breeze. He expends little effort editing writers’ monologue jokes, but he could talk about show characters and cartoons all day long—the Masturbating Bear, Embryonic Rockabilly Polka-Dotted Fighter Pilots, Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (the puppet who says all the hostile things to celebrities O’Brien cannot, because he is constitutionally incapable of offending a stranger to his face). Later, the NBC censors will prevent him from airing Chewbacca Stuck in a Glory Hole, and O’Brien won’t like that one bit.
“Guys,” groans Sweeney, “We need a top of one!”
The writers, as motley a crew as you would expect, but all of them remarkably upbeat, nonconfrontational, and possessed of an innocence that makes one wonder if they listened to what people said about them in junior high, wander in and out of Sweeney’s square, gray, not particularly clean office. (The stains on the floor, Sweeney explains, are from fondue. “ ‘People, use pots,’ I tell them.”) The writers are comfortable around Conan, but just. He accepts their ideas, sometimes with glee, but rarely gets excited by early notions. One time, I walked in on him beating one with a rolled-up Daily News.