While in Atlanta taping on-the-road segments for his late-night TBS show recently, Conan O’Brien stopped by Empire State South, the popular Midtown restaurant owned by Hugh Acheson, and chose a dish that looked healthy: kale salad and trout.
“It was absolutely the most delicious meal I’ve had in a long time,” said O’Brien — who will shoot four episodes of “Conan” at The Tabernacle Monday through Thursday — in an exclusive interview. “But the kale salad had buttermilk and chicken skin. I think the trout was injected with cheese. I spent the night on a defibrillator.”
O’Brien, 49, experienced plenty of heart palpitations during his 17 years at NBC, 16 of which he spent hosting a successful late-night program after “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” In 2009, O’Brien took over for Leno, capturing what he described at the time as his dream job.
Or so he thought.
When Leno’s ill-fated 10 p.m. show faltered, network executives tried to push O’Brien’s show past midnight and return Leno to 11:35 p.m. Instead, O’Brien walked out in a flurry of fan outrage and obsessive media coverage.
Atlanta-based TBS scooped him up and made him the centerpiece of the comedy network.
O’Brien found peace.
“They’ve been fantastic partners,” he said. “The Turner people are so great.They have a ‘go for it, whatever you want’ attitude. They’ve enabled us to do segments I feel might not have happened five, ten years ago” on NBC.
For instance, O’Brien recently aired a “fan-sourced” episode. His staff solicited viewers to contribute video re-enactments of an older episode. Some used animation, puppets or clay figures. Many donned bad red wigs. The videos were stitched together into a coherent re-creation.
“It was strange,” said Jeff Ross, O’Brien’s producer for 20 years. “It was cool. The creativity was mindblowing.”
On TBS, O’Brien draws far fewer viewers than he did when he was on NBC. But Turner Entertainment President Steve Koonin says he’s happy with the show’s performance because it draws advertiser-friendly younger viewers.
“Conan” last year beat Leno, CBS’s “Late Night With David Letterman” and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” among 18 to 34 year olds. Its median viewer age of 38 is lower than that of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.
The ‘Funny Four’
Koonin said he brought O’Brien to Atlanta as a tie-in to Turner Broadcasting’s NCAA tournament coverage on its various networks, including TBS. The Final Four championships will be held at the Georgia Dome, a 10-minute walk from the Tabernacle.
“Any time you have an event bring in casual viewers,” said Koonin, “it’s a great association. For Conan, this will be the ‘Funny Four’ episodes before the big game. They love to go on the road. It’s good for staff. It’s good for Conan. It’s good for us.”
“Conan,” which normally tapes in Los Angeles, has done week-long sojourns to Chicago and New York.
“Atlanta gives us new stuff to work off of,” O’Brien said. “We’ve noticed this great cultural stew we get to plug into. Wait. You can’t plug into a stew, can you?”
Guests this week will include actor Paul Rudd, singer Darius Rucker and TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley. (On past shows, O’Brien has brought in a fake Ted Turner, played by Will Forte. He wouldn’t say if he’d be able to get the real Turner on the show, though he is aware Turner’s Atlanta abode is across the street from the Tabernacle.)
In the segments taped in Atlanta earlier this month, O’Brien interacted with a group of Civil War re-enactors and visited a church in Decatur. Before he returned to L.A., he stopped by the Carter Center and met the former president.
Viewers should also expect to see shots from the Tabernacle, which O’Brien fell in love with while scouting sites in November.
“It’s a converted Baptist church with so much character,” O’Brien said. “We’re really going to go with that. It sure beats doing it at a convention center.”
Last year, the show created a lottery for free tickets to the four shows at the Tabernacle, drawing 22,000 submissions for about 5,400 openings.
O’Brien demurred when asked about recent rumors that NBC was positioning Jimmy Fallon, who now airs at 12:35 a.m., to take over for Leno, an echo of the bungled transition O’Brien experienced there.
“We’ve been down that road before,” O’Brien said with a sigh. “I honestly don’t know what to make of it.”
He acknowledged that the late-night world is far more splintered than it was when Johnny Carson ruled the roost.
“There used to be three of us,” he said. “Now it’s more like 55. My focus now is to do good work, focus on doing stuff that challenges me and makes me laugh, that feels different and is evolving.”
And if that doesn’t work out? “I can always return to male modeling,” he cracked.
“Conan,” 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday, TBS