BURBANK, Calif. - Remember when Conan O'Brien was merely the funniest redhead on the planet?
Now, through some weird twists of fate you could not make up, he's also the creator and producer of a reality series called "Extreme Makeover: Talk Show Edition."
You remember the first makeover, the one known as "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien." That took place at Universal Studios and lasted all of seven months on NBC. The new makeover, known as "Conan," is being put together three miles away, at Stage 15 on the Warner Bros. lot.
It's a smaller stage, which is just as well since O'Brien is working with a smaller budget. And yet, thanks to the relentlessness of the TBS publicity machine (those blimp ads!) and the whirlwind of publicity that accompanied his exit from NBC earlier this year, O'Brien may actually exceed his "Tonight Show" hype when "Conan" launches Monday.
Since his sold-out "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" tour ended this summer, O'Brien's staff members have been furiously hammering and retooling and rewriting this latest version of the Conan comedy cavalcade.
"We started in July, with a completely empty box," said executive producer Jeff Ross, my tour guide. Ross has been O'Brien's right hand since 1993, the man overseeing production ever since O'Brien's tryout before a test audience.
Speaking of which, the crew was rapidly putting together Stage 15 in anticipation of the test shows, which began two weeks ago. It seems odd the man who has taped 3,000 programs, and was once considered the future of late-night TV by no less an authority than Jay Leno, would still be working out the kinks. But look around and it becomes clear why Conan 3.0 might be in need of some beta testing.
The new set recalibrates the relationship between host and audience. There are far fewer seats here than his Carsonesque "Tonight Show" grandstand held. About 260 guests will watch in a cozy, theater-in-the-round setting. Blue is out and orange is in - not a garish Halloween hue, either, but something warm and mellow, such as the embers of a late-night fire. It's fan-friendlier, and that makes sense. After all, O'Brien left NBC for basic cable in part because he wanted to have an audience that was devoted to him more than he wanted to be No. 1 in late night.
"Our challenge was creating intimate space in an airport hangar," said O'Brien, still sporting the beard he grew for his concert tour. "When I worked on 'Saturday Night Live,' Dana Carvey had this great phrase - comedy compression. You want to have the right space so the comedy can bounce off the walls. And then we can shoot 'Step Up 4: Electric Boogaloo' in the unused space."
The other challenge was relaunching O'Brien on a cable channel and a cable budget. No one is talking salaries, perhaps because it would be tacky in these times of economic hardship, or perhaps just because it's legally prohibited. But TBS didn't become hugely profitable by handing out fat paychecks.
Ross acknowledged that with O'Brien's production company now bearing the financial burden of the show, he would look for efficiencies. But, he added, he knew where to look.
"We've been doing this a long time," he said.
One area where O'Brien is threatening to splurge is the legal department. A Rolling Stone article, which appeared after my visit, quoted him as saying he planned to bring over as much intellectual property as he wanted to his TBS show - industry reporters couldn't wait to write up that story, with its obligatory mention of the show's Masturbating Bear character - and he dared NBC to sue. Then again, it was probably an empty bluff: O'Brien knows that NBC's soon-to-be owner, Comcast, has had amicable business dealings over the years with Time Warner, which owns TBS. (The two companies shared cable operations in Kansas City and Texas.)
Among the 40 or so people on stage on the day of my visit was Jimmy Vivino, the show's new bandleader, taking over for Max Weinberg. Vivino and the other members of the Basic Cable Band were standing in their places as crew members adjusted the lighting around them.
At a test show last week, the band played a new theme song. One person in the audience, a self-proclaimed "trumpet geek," waited to hear band member Mark Pender hit his trademark A-above-high-C at the end of the theme. He's still waiting.
But my spy also noticed one other important and welcome change.
"Conan was having fun," he said. "I didn't get the sense that was the case during 'The Tonight Show.'"
Series premieres 11 p.m. Monday on TBS, and airs Mondays to Thursdays.