Photo: Tim Mosenfelder (Getty Images)

Conan O’Brien’s been gearing up for the January 22 return of his TBS late-night show with a stand-up tour, a podcast, and a hilarious “Without Borders” trip to Japan. Along with the show’s new half-hour format, these endeavors mark not just a new era for Conan, but also an evolution in what we perceive to be late-night comedy. Conan clearly welcomes the shift, saying in a new interview with The New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff that the new approach is a “gradual progression toward me making the job fit me more.”

“What if I tried to, in the most selfish way possible, to alter this so that I have a maximum amount of fun?” he added. “I decided to scare myself.”

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That fear is palpable—“What if I walked out on the first test show and just started openly weeping?” he says—if only because it’s causing the host to reckon with the weight of his legacy in a world that won’t stop changing.

“I’m never going to have a better farewell show than I did on The Tonight Show,” he said. “I loved that show and so I feel, in a weird way, I had my farewell show. I did it. I died, and talked to my grandfather and saw the light and was called back. This concept that I must be the king of late night, I don’t even know what that means anymore. I don’t know who that is anymore. It’s an outmoded concept. I’ve come to realize that there’ll come a point where it’s just not even thought of as late night: ‘Oh, you make that stuff that makes me laugh.’”

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“Is this how you want to go out, with a show that gets smaller and smaller until it’s gone?” Itzkoff asked, giving way to a rambling, distinctively Conanian response that indulges a nihilism both dispiriting and beautiful.

At this point in my career, I could go out with a grand, 21-gun salute, and climb into a rocket and the entire Supreme Court walks out and they jointly press a button, I’m shot up into the air and there’s an explosion and it’s orange and it spells, “Good night and God love.” In this culture? Two years later, it’s going to be, who’s Conan? This is going to sound grim, but eventually, all our graves go unattended.

You’re right, that does sound grim.

Sorry. Calvin Coolidge was a pretty popular president. I’ve been to his grave in Vermont. It has the presidential seal on it. Nobody was there. And by the way, I’m the only late-night host that has been to Calvin Coolidge’s grave. I think’s that what separates me from the other hosts.

I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.

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Conan returns next week in its 30-minute format with a new set, no desk, and a marked lack of music. Learn more about it in the full interview, which you can find here.