"At the end of my 'Tonight Show,' I remember I said something that really resonated with me," O'Brien said. "It just came off the top of my head. I said, 'This is really not a big deal because all we are here to do is to have fun on television.' "
O'Brien shares a late-night trait with Johnny Carson and Letterman. He's actually sort of publicity shy.
He doesn't do a lot of interviews he did almost none before "Conan" debuted, fearful of questions about Leno.
"I mean, I'm someone who likes to come in and do my job, and then I like to go home and play with my kids," he said. "I wasn't used to being a media story. It was never a goal of mine."
O'Brien recounted being followed by the paparazzi, who camped out outside the Santa Barbara hotel he went to with his wife after he left "Tonight."
"I'm not Brad Pitt. I'm not George Clooney. I've been blessed with their DNA," he joked, "but I just thought, 'Who are they following?' So that was weird."
As was the applause he received when he walked into a restaurant just after he left NBC.
"I thought, 'Well, that's nice. This is weird. And, also, this isn't a living. I don't see how to do this as a job walk around and get applauded in restaurants,' " O'Brien said. "I'm very suspicious of those things, naturally. I'm a do-your-job-and-shut up person. I have an Irish-Catholic suspicion of praise and anything that feels a little over the top."
And, while he has come to the realization that he doesn't have to "be on TV forever," he did want to do a show that would allow him to do whatever he wants. To "have fun" and make the show an "experimentation in silliness."
"There's nothing like walking away from 'The Tonight Show' to make you really appreciate getting to do a show," O'Brien said. And he's more than ready to stop talking about Leno.
"I'm happy to move past this period of time and just have people say did they like my show last night? Did they not like my show?" O'Brien said.
"People say, 'You look like you are having a blast.' And I've always known that if I am having a fun time in this little box on the show, it will come through."
Scott D. Pierce's column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Mix. He can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8603. Check out the TV or Not TV blog at sltrib.com/blogs/tv .