Conan obrien1

Conan back on the late shift

By Karen Butler

Irish-American comedian Conan O'Brien recently experienced a bittersweet return to New York to talk up his new late-night chat show, which will begin airing on TBS is November.

Alternately hilarious and humble, O'Brien took the stage at Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom and admitted he was still befuddled by this year's highly-publicized events in his career, which he likened to the plot twists of the mystery series "Lost."

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"I love doing comedy at 10 in the morning," the 47-year-old Brookline, Mass. native told reporters and advertisers gathered for the TNT and TBS 2010 Upfront programming presentation.

"I realized this morning, actually, when I woke up that this is my first time back in New York City since I was here exactly one year ago for the NBC Upfront," O'Brien explained. "By the way, if anyone in this room could explain exactly what the hell happened four months ago, I'd be thrilled to hear it. I'll be in the lobby afterward. I am all ears. The plot to 'Lost' is more plausible than the last year of my life. It makes more sense. In the last 12 months, I signed off as host of 'Late Night,' I launched 'The Tonight Show,' I stepped down as host of 'The Tonight Show,' I joined Twitter, I grew a beard, I launched a 32-city music and comedy tour, I served briefly as the undersecretary of the interior of the Obama administration, I resigned in scandal, started my own religious cult in Nova Scotia, perfected a mechanical human heart and now I am here as part of the TBS family. What a year!"

Oddly enough, at least half of that craziness is really true.

NBC booted Jay Leno as host of "The Tonight Show" in Los Angeles at the end of last season and gave the position to O'Brien -- then the host of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" in New York -- to keep O'Brien from moving to another network. NBC then offered Leno a nightly, hour-long 10 p.m. series.

But when the prime time "Jay Leno Show" failed to be a strong lead-in for local news broadcasts, NBC announced it would push Leno's show back to 11:35 p.m., shorten it to 30 minutes and air "Tonight" at 12:05 a.m. However, O'Brien announced in January he would not remain on "Tonight" if it was bumped to 12:05 a.m. and left the network, paving the way for Leno's return as "Tonight" host.

O'Brien last month announced plans to star in a new, as-yet-untitled, talk show to air Monday through Thursday nights at 11 p.m. on TBS this fall.

"All joking aside, I'm absolutely thrilled to be here today," the flame-haired funny man said at the Upfront event promoting the shows of TBS and TNT.

"(Turner Entertainment Networks President) Steve Koonin's excitement for me and what I do has been, on a personal level nothing short of exhilarating and I want you to know I really believe in basic cable television," declared O'Brien, who traces his family roots to Co. Kerry. "I do. I think basic cable is what makes this country great. I do not want to live in a country with less than six ESPNs. I'm committed to that."

Adopting a more serious tone, O'Brien added, "Steve and his team have a clear vision for their network. They believe in me, I believe in them and I cannot wait to get back to having fun on television again. That's all I want to do."

The comedian acknowledged he's had a lot of people approaching him and asking him how he's doing in recent months.

"I have to tell you my live tour has been my happiest experience in 20-some-odd years in show business. It has been an absolute thrill. I am learning stuff on the road and it's changing me as a performer," he noted. "My vision for the TBS show is to pick up where 'Hee-Haw' left off . . . I haven't done any research, but I have a good hunch that 33-year-old males want to hear corny jokes and lots of classic country music. That's my thought, so, Steve, thanks for the blank creative check. You fool!"

O'Brien then picked up a guitar and, accompanied by two backup musicians, began playing a song that could be called "My Own Show Again," set to the tune of Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again."

"My own show again; I just can't wait to have my own show again. I'd even take a prime time show that's on at 10, anything to get my own show again," he sang. "My own show again, on any network, even Oxygen. I know you think that channel's only for women, but I'd change my sex to have my own show again . . . Dear God, please get me off the road again. I'm sleeping on a bus with 27 men. I would sell my soul to have my own show again."

As for his new look, O'Brien insists he plans to keep that beard for at least a little while.

"The beard can shock people when they first see it because I've been off television for a while. Not everybody loves the beard," he confided. "Some people say I look like Paul Bunyon with an eating disorder. Others say I look the Brawny paper towel guy just before his bone-marrow transplant."