After his set in Bonnaroo’s sweltering comedy tent Saturday, his second of two performances at the fest, Conan O’Brien seemed to be having more fun than anyone. He chatted with fans backstage near the open bar, wearing a Pabst Blue Ribbon shirt and a scraggly beard, taking photos with anyone who asked before rocking out onstage to the Dead Weather’s blistering set. The late-night vet was equally gregarious when Rolling Stone approached him for an on-the-fly interview earlier in the day. O’Brien performed impromptu stand-up as he talked about Bonnaroo, his friendship with Jack White and why he may have an illegitimate child on the way.
How do you like Bonnaroo?
My only regret is that no one is showering. At the end of my show, I go into the crowd with my guitar. Yesterday, the odor was appalling. I haven’t smelled anything like that since Slipknot was on my late-night show. After they played, they hugged me. And these are guys that haven’t showered in six years and they’re wearing giant leather costumes. And they got me in a group hug and locked me in there. I thought I was going to die.
What is the best part?
Performing for women in bikinis — it’s just mindblowing. I finished my show, I can’t see the audience because it’s dark. It’s going well, sounds great, great energy in the room. I jump in and discover that everyone is pretty much naked. The men aren’t wearing any tops — they’re all shirtless. The women are in string bikinis. We’re all hugging. I may have conceived a baby in that crowd. We’ll find out because it got crazy in there. So nine months from now, there may be a Conan baby from Bonnaroo that I know nothing about. It was completely accidental — just because the moshpit got a little out of hand.
I thought only Willie Nelson had that problem.
Yes. I also have problems with the Internal Revenue Service, so don’t talk about it. Willie and I are very similar in many ways.
Do you think you’ll play more festivals in the future?
Performing music live and doing comedy, like the thing I did with Jack White, the thing I did at this festival, is the most fun. It’s such a visceral experience. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had in show business. I still love working in television, but I have to figure out a way to keep this alive this a little bit.
So you are thinking of continuing to tour after you return to television in the fall?
Well, I don’t know how to do it — I can’t tell you how. I’ve got to figure out a way to keep this aspect of my life going a little because it’s just too much fun. Even if I don’t make a nickel doing it, it’s just too much fun.
Does an intimate show like this bring you back to your early career days before Late Night?
I didn’t do standup, I did improv, but I always loved playing with musicians. It gets me out of my comedy head a little bit. It’s the same thing for Steve Martin — you still do comedy and you blend in a song every now and then. In our show, we go into “Seven Nation Army” with horns and it’s just really fun. My job one is to be funny. That’s always the most important thing. But every now and then I get to play a rockabilly tune with Brian Setzer or get to play with Jack White — it’s fantasy camp. This whole tour, sometimes I feel like it’s Make a Wish. Nobody’s told me that I’m dying. They’re letting me have this tour and then afterward they’re going to tell me.
How did you meet Jack White?
We’ve been friends for years. It was in a bowling ally in Detroit — I was hanging out in this bowling alley with some of my writers. We were shooting something, and Jack was there and we hung out for a while. He was really cool. He was just thanking me for putting young music, new music on the show, so we hung out and talked. And then years later, when he hit really big, he came up to me and said, “Remember me from the bowling alley?” And I said, “What?” It’s just so weird that we have that bond. (Read more about O’Brien’s special relationship with the White Stripes.)
This happened before the White Stripes had broken through?
It was a couple years before the White Stripes hit. He was just this kid that was talking to me in a bowling ally. And it was great. I’m so comfortable with him as an artist. I was telling Jack that I wouldn’t have been comfortable with anyone else because you have to kind of give yourself over to Jack’s world. I’m so comfortable with him. I had a great day [in Tennessee earlier in the week]. I just hung out at his house. Really just an amazing day and getting to do that show was a highlight. (Read more about O’Brien’s secret show at Jack White’s Third Man Studios.)
I hope you two do something together tonight.
I don’t know what’s happening tonight. I’m just trying to survive this. At the end of a long tour I’m just trying to literally survive it. I’ve got one or two more dates left and then I’m going to go home and they’re going to put me in the hospital.