Conan O’Brien on podcasting and why late-night TV rivalries are over

“Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” is an irresistible mixture of philosophical discussions about art and life and pure zaniness. It’s a program from the late-night host turned podcasting ringmaster that defies easy characterization, and a show that manages to move seamlessly from moments of hilarity to unexpected instances of confession. In one episode, Jeff Goldblum makes purring noises and discusses pinkie rings. In another, Stephen Colbert movingly talks about the deaths of his father and brothers in a plane crash. O’Brien, the host of TBS’ “Conan,” spoke with Variety about why he enjoys exploring the world of audio after nearly a quarter century on television, and the big names he’d like to befriend in future seasons of the show.

Did you have trouble booking guests?
I was doing an event with Will Ferrell at the Greek Theatre, and I knew our booker had reached out to him about doing the podcast. I showed up, and he came out of his dressing room and grabbed me by both shoulders and said, ‘I’m not doing your f—ing podcast.’ I didn’t realize at that moment that he was kidding. He had intended all along to do the podcast — but there was a second there where I thought this is going to be everybody’s reaction.

Very quickly people started hearing the podcast, and we started having people book themselves. As a lifelong believer in achievement through pain and some amount of suffering — it all goes back to a Catholic childhood — this season has been infuriating because it has undone everything I’ve ever believed.

What do celebrities like about doing the show?
It’s a chance for them to come in and have this intimate conversation. I remember Lisa Kudrow said to me, “Wait, no hair. No makeup. I’m there.” People can roll in on the way to pick up their kids or right after they’ve had a colonoscopy. That’s the secret: Interview them about two hours after their colonoscopy, when the twilight drugs are wearing off and they’ve been told they’re polyp-free.

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Conan O'Brien out and about
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Conan O'Brien out and about
WATCH WHAT HAPPENS LIVE WITH ANDY COHEN -- Episode 14094 -- Pictured: (l-r) Conan O'Brien -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/Bravo)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 17: Conan O'Brien attends the 2017 Turner Upfront at Madison Square Garden on May 17, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 08: Conan O'Brien is seen on May 8, 2017 in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Hollywood To You/Star Max/GC Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 17: Conan O'Brien and Andy Richter attend the Turner Upfront 2017 green room at Lugo Cucina Italiana on May 17, 2017 in New York City. 26617_005 (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Turner)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - FEBRUARY 16: Conan O'Brien greets fans on February 16, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico.
OSLO, NORWAY-DECEMBER 11: Conan O'Brien speaks to the audience and celebrate this year� Nobel Peace Prize laureate President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, during the Nobel Peace Prize Concert at Telenor Arena on December 11, 2016 in Oslo, Norway. (Photo by Nigel Waldron/ Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08: (L-R) Liza Powel O'Brien, TV personality Conan O'Brien, and honoree Jack White attend the P&E Wing Event honoring Jack White at The Village Studios on February 8, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage)
OSLO, NORWAY-DECEMBER 11: host Conan O'Brien of United States attends the press conference ahead of the Nobel Peace Prize Concert at the Norwegian Nobel Institute. Tonight's Nobel Peace Prize Concert will be hosted by Conan O'Brien to honour this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on December 11, 2016 in Oslo, Norway. (Photo by Nigel Waldron/ Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - DECEMBER 01: Liza O'Brien (L) and Conan O'Brien arrive to the Children's Defense Fund-California's 26th Annual Beat The Odds Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on December 1, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - DECEMBER 01: Conan O'Brien arrives to the Children's Defense Fund-California's 26th Annual Beat The Odds Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on December 1, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - DECEMBER 01: (L-R) Honorees Destiny Novillo and Cierra Gunderson, host Conan O'Brien, and honorees Alexandra Flores and Jose Aceves onstage during the 26th Annual Beat The Odds Awards, hosted by Children's Defense Fund - California, at Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel on December 1, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Children's Defense Fund )
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 19: Television host, Conan O'Brien, speaks onstage during 'Our Brands, Ourselves' at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 19, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 14: Conan O'Brien is seen at LAX on October 14, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by starzfly/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 24: Conan O'Brien attends the TBS For Your Consideration event at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on May 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 24: (L-R) Kevin Pereira, Conan O'Brien and Jere Burns attend TBS Night Out LA at The Theater at The Ace Hotel on May 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. 26162_001 (Photo by John Sciulli/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 24: Comedian Conan O'Brien attends TBS Night Out LA at The Theater at The Ace Hotel on May 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. 26162_001 (Photo by John Sciulli/WireImage)
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You ask your guests a lot of questions about what drives them to achieve at a high level. Why does that interest you?
None of us really knows ourselves. Part of my obsession is I’ve always wanted to know what’s my deal? What’s my problem? If you could get in a time machine
and go back and look at me when I was 10 years old, you’d see a pretty intense kid. Why? Some of these people were really hard on themselves when they were kids, and they’re really hard on themselves now, except now they have Emmys and Oscars and Grammys. That’s remarkable, and maybe it will be helpful to people listening.

You interviewed two competitors, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert. Late-night television used to be a battleground. Have things mellowed?
It’s totally different. When I came into it in 1993, it was like a national sport. Who’s up? Who’s down? Leno vs. Letterman: a clash of the titans.

It’s changed so much. There are so many more people doing it now. If we were still battling it out to the death, I don’t think I’d be doing a podcast. There’s more of an opportunity now to experiment, and there’s less distraction about the whole late-night madness. I have the advantage of being, improbably, the old hand now. I’m Robert Shaw in “Jaws.” I’m the crusty old sea salt who’s seen it all. I’m about to be bitten in half, but damn it, Quint has a podcast.

14 PHOTOS
Jimmy Kimmel out and about
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Jimmy Kimmel out and about
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Monday, April 16 included Rob Lowe ('Super Troopers 2'), Michelle Wolf (Host of this year's White House Correspondents Dinner), and musical guest Jorja Smith. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) JIMMY KIMMEL
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Thursday, April 12 included Shia LaBeouf ('Borg Vs. McEnroe'), Sandra Oh ('Killing Eve'), and musical guest First Aid Kit. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) JIMMY KIMMEL, CLETO AND THE CLETONES
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Wednesday, April 11 included Anna Faris ('Overboard'), Chris Hardwick ('Talking Dead'), and musical guest The Regrettes. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) JIMMY KIMMEL, CLETO AND THE CLETONES
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Wednesday, April 11 included Anna Faris ('Overboard'), Chris Hardwick ('Talking Dead'), and musical guest The Regrettes. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) JIMMY KIMMEL
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Tuesday, April 10 included Eva Longoria ('Overboard'), Sebastian Maniscalco (Radio City Music Hall Special), and musical guest Daniel Caesar Ft. H.E.R. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) JIMMY KIMMEL
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Monday, April 9 included Zooey Deschanel ('New Girl'), Snoop Dogg ('Joker's Wild'), and musical guest Snoop Dogg. (Randy Holmes via Getty Images) SNOOP DOGG, JIMMY KIMMEL
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Monday, April 9 included Zooey Deschanel ('New Girl'), Snoop Dogg ('Joker's Wild'), and musical guest Snoop Dogg. (Randy Holmes via Getty Images) JIMMY KIMMEL
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 09: Jimmy Kimmel is seen at 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' on April 09, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by RB/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Monday, April 2 included Jeffrey Dean Morgan ('Rampage'), Jenna Fischer ('Splitting Up Together'), and musical guest Ashley McBryde. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) GUILLERMO RODRIGUEZ, VAISHNAVI SAM, JIMMY KIMMEL, SAMUEL BERNARDO, AMIMRA WARREN
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Wednesday, March 21 included Charlie Day ('Pacific Rim Uprising'), Henry Winkler ('Barry'), and musical guest Sabrina Carpenter Ft. Jonas Blue. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) HENRY WINKLER, JIMMY KIMMEL
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Tuesday, March 20 included Katie Couric ('Stand Up To Cancer'), Judd Apatow ('The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling'), and musical guest The Decemberists. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) JIMMY KIMMEL
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Thursday, March 15 included Zach Braff ('Alex, Inc.'), Nick Robinson ('Love, Simon'), and musical guest B�rns. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) JIMMY KIMMEL
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Tuesday, March 13 included Andy Samberg ('Brooklyn Nine-Nine'), Lena Waithe ('Ready Player One'), and musical guest Buddy Guy. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) JIMMY KIMMEL
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Monday, March 12 included Lionel Richie ('American Idol), Yara Shahidi ('grown-ish), and musical guest Moon Taxi. (Randy Holmes via Getty Images) JIMMY KIMMEL
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Do you have any dream interviews?
We haven’t scratched the surface. John Mulaney is someone that I really admire. Martin Scorsese would be someone I’m dying to talk to in this format. Jack White would be fascinating.

You’re podcasting. You’re doing a travel show. You recently did a comedy tour. Would you be content to just host a late-night show now?
I still enjoy it, but when you’ve been in this business a long time, you start to realize that familiarity breeds contempt, and you’ve got to keep challenging yourself. The podcast is a good example of that. It’s really fun — and that’s fresh blood for an old vampire.

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