Conan's Best Friend on the Host's College Years

Close friend dishes on Conan's teetotaling college life, leaving 'The Tonight Show' and what the future holds

November 5, 2010 5:21 PM ET

In the new issue of Rolling Stone , Conan O'Brien's college housemate, the Rev. Paul O'Brien (no relation), talks at length with Mark Binelli about his longtime friend. The two lived in the same dorm? — Mather House? — at Harvard, along with future NBC President Jeff Zucker, who orchestrated Conan's exit from The Tonight Show before being fired himself.

Video: Behind the scenes at Conan's RS cover shoot

"We grew very close," Paul said. "We did go often to the same church in college and at home. He stood out for people who met him as unusually quick-witted and very hardworking? — and also quite straightlaced when it comes to how he lived his life. He was the guy who never did drugs. I don't even remember if he drank, but he was a seriously funny guy and a serious guy, as well. The stories he tells of him being a geek, he's lampooning himself to a certain extent, but they're all basically true. In the world [where] we grew up, saying you want to be a comedy writer is not what you did."

Paul added: "I would not have known in college that he was as interested in performing as he was, but he recognized that gift, and he worked really, really hard after college to learn performance skills."

Paul reconnected with Conan when they ran into each other at a Christmas midnight mass, and earlier this year, Paul caught up with Conan during his national tour. "It was obviously very therapeutic that he was able to process what happened to him in front of thousands of people every night," Paul said. "I've never seen him that high-energy. While that was all going down, the situation was a total surprise. The character of some of the people with whom he was dealing was disgusting, and he was taking so seriously, 'What's the right thing to do?'

"So my concern obviously was that he try to figure out the right thing to do here morally and ethically, and also that he make a decision true to himself. There was plenty of room for him to be really damaged by this. When he had this array of choices, at one point I thought, because of his very strange? — to me? — attachment to the franchise of The Tonight Show, I thought he might make a decision to continue the show that would compromise his ideals. And when he decided to say goodbye, I was proud of his integrity and intelligence.

"He's freed from a corporate situation that set him up for failure. The last months have proved to him that he could be as free as he wants to be. I don't think he was watering down his comedy for a particular franchise? — but if there's any possibility of that, it's gone. Is he in a better place as a comic entertainer than he was a year ago, when he was hosting The Tonight Show? Without a doubt."

Listen to two tracks from Conan O'Brien's live album recorded with Jack White 

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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