The following is an excerpt of an article from the November 11, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. This issue is available now on newstands, as well online in Rolling Stone’s digital archive. Click here to subscribe.
In July, shortly after his Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour wrapped up, Conan O'Brien began visiting the set of his new talk show, at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California. For various reasons, the show had not been staffed yet, nor had the set been built, so on those days, O'Brien would occasionally pause en route to his office and stand alone in a giant, empty warehouse. As career metaphors go, one could do worse: At least the warehouse wasn't on fire, or dripping blood from the ceiling, or filled, floor to rafters, with an existentially crushing number of identical wooden crates, like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
O'Brien had lost his dream job as host of The Tonight Show in January, at a speed (seven months!) almost as humiliating as the circumstances of his departure (ousted for Jay Leno, which is the comedy-world equivalent of being left at the altar for a cast member of Jersey Shore). "My wife says those first couple of months, the thing I said most often was, 'Wait a minute, what just happened?'" O'Brien recalls.
"Those weeks after the tour, where not much was going on, Conan was miserable," confirms his wife, Liza Powel, a blunt and dryly funny former advertising executive with whom O'Brien has two children. "That was when he was the most depressed." Powel says she had "all sorts of grand designs" about keeping her idled spouse busy: He would be responsible for camp drop-offs, he would cook dinner at least one night a week. None of which ended up happening. O'Brien did go for long bicycle rides, and read lots of history books. At a parents' night at their son Beckett's preschool, there was a stack of volunteer sign-up sheets, and O'Brien, who still had too much time on his hands, became overly ambitious and started signing up for everything: "Oh, I'd love to come talk to the kids about natural history!"
"He was in the house all the time," Powel recalls. "I said, 'This can't last – it'll drive us crazy!' Literally every 10 minutes, he'd poke his head in the room and say, 'I don't wanna bother you, but do you know where the Band-Aids are?' 'I don't wanna bother you, but do you know how to use the phone?' He was so sweet about it, and I felt like such a jerk. But seriously, I almost rented an office for him."
The morning after O'Brien's final Tonight Show – his second-highest- rated episode ever, quadrupling his average nightly viewership – he and Powel drove up to a resort in Montecito. "I felt like I'd just been in a car accident," O'Brien says. "Like a crazy mix of elation, anger, sorrow. Confusion was a big one." That night, when they entered the dining room and the other guests stood up and applauded, O'Brien says, "It almost made me cry."
The above is an excerpt of an article from the November 11, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. This issue is available now on newstands, as well online in Rolling Stone’s digital archive. Click here to subscribe.