At 52, Conan O’Brien is the unlikely elder statesman of the late night talk show wars, as well as its longest-lasting current host. As an appreciative Washington Post article by Emily Yahr details, however, O’Brien is as boyish and spry as ever and seems delighted to be pursuing his own absurd comedic interests on his self-titled TBS series, unmoved by whatever trends are driving the other late-night shows. In fact, according to the article, the glut of evening talk shows has freed O’Brien up a bit, especially compared to his days on NBC. Even during a tense election year, he doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to do a Donald Trump or Marco Rubio joke every night; there are plenty of other shows for that. Instead, O’Brien says, he can ask himself: “What is it that I really want to do with this time? What’s important to me?”
Comedian Norm MacDonald, a frequent guest and long-time friend, chalks up O‘Brien’s appeal to his focus on getting laughs above all else: “Everybody has taken Jimmy Fallon’s lead in terms of ‘do something that goes viral’ and do a talent thing, rather than comedy being the primary objective. I think with Conan, still the first agenda is comedy and everything comes after that.” While others have tried to characterize O’Brien as the anti-Fallon in this regard, the host himself disregards the label. “I do not like comedy snobbery,” he says. What he does like, however, is traveling to far-flung locations, including Finland, Qatar, South Korea, and Armenia, to film remote bits for his show, a penchant fully embraced by TBS president Kevin Reilly. Though the network would love O’Brien’s show to pull in Fallon-type numbers, they’re happy that he has the youngest median audience in the biz. And, without copying The Tonight Show, Conan has been very successful in generating viral online content as well. For his part, O’Brien seems happy to be given “free rein” at the basic cable network. After all these years, says the article, he still seems to enjoy his job immensely, even when cracking jokes about Kim and Kanye during the monologue.