Definitely, I was concerned about people saying that. I personally did not feel that was the case. At that point, I had had three sitcoms, two of which I helped produce and create, which I’m very proud of. One was just a gig. I had pitched a sketch comedy to Comedy Central and that fell apart. That was a blow. I was like, come on — I’ve been on TV for this long and I can’t get a sketch show on Comedy Central? So when Conan asked me to come back, I was like, hell yes, I’ll come back to making immediate TV. And to work with people I knew and loved. Who am I to turn down being the sidekick on “The Tonight Show”? That’s like a tenured professor of television. And it was ideally supposed to last as long as we wanted it to.
After all these years, would you ever find yourself getting anxious right before you went onstage?
Not anymore. It’s a trick you do with your mind, of saying, well, the stakes aren’t that high. I have to not care. I know it’s the way to get the best output. The not-caring is an absence of overthinking and doubt. You just do it. It doesn’t matter. I’ve said that to guests when they leave. Big movie-star guests will turn to me [dopey voice], “Was that OK?” Yeah, it’s great. And besides, it doesn’t really matter. It’s all so ephemeral. It just floats out into the night air and is gone, for the most part.
Why do you think the tradition of the late-night sidekick fell out of practice over the years?
I have theories about it. One of them is, Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon existed unto themselves. There was no late-night war. There was no competition. It was just a leisurely conversation. When you look at some of the old interviews that went on for like three acts, they don’t talk about anything. There just was nothing else on. When it started to be a competition, then it started to be about a personality and branding the show based on this one person.
Was it considered out of step even in the 1990s when Conan wanted you to be his sidekick?
I think that role was seen as corny. When I came into it, it was helpful that we wanted the show to look traditional. Conan decided we’re going to wear suits and ties. It’s going to have an old-fashioned formality. But everything from there on was absurdist and ironic. There’s going to be the ghost of an old sea captain that comes in and yells at Conan. You’ve got to either be on board with that or not. It’s not just, hey, here’s something we saw in the paper or playing games. A lot of late-night comedy is that way because it’s late. People want to hear an easy joke that goes right down the pipe and puts ’em to sleep. [Laughs]
Do you think that hosts now are unwilling to let others share in their relationship with the audience — that they need that direct connection to their viewers and can’t risk anyone else co-opting it?
Yes, there’s ego involved, too. Most talk-show hosts are damaged. [Laughs] They have taken their personality and commodified it. I am selling you a pill and the pill is me. That’s hard on your psyche. It creates a love-hate relationship with the job, with the attention, with the audience, with the network. A lot of people don’t have room to throw another person in there, who’s going to be funny and get some of the attention. Much to Conan’s credit, he’s made a space for me and been secure enough to let me be funny on my own.