Critics didn't know what to do with Canon O'Brien, so they just trashed his show. Until recently. Viewers and writers are taking a second look and revising their first opinions as the new Late Night hits its stride and shakes off the ghost of David Letterman.
Succeeding Letterman as NBC's 12:30 a.m. late night host, as a virtual `unknown,' Conan O'Brien '85, the "Simpsons" comedy writer whose career began as a two-term Lampoon president, had no small task ahead of him. By all reports Conan is extraordinarily well-man-nered, quick-witted, and undeniably charismatic in person. Yet his show is not consistent enough to be pigeonholed, not unpredictable enough to be shocking. Inaugural televised appearances of peripheral bands like Urge Overkill, Morphine, and Jowbox follow interviews with hip literati like George Plimpton and rapping Allen Ginsberg. He's the clean cut 1950's era boy-next-door who admits, "I'm incredibly square." In a business notorious for cutthroat self-promotion, Conan's sincerity leaves the cynical confused. When he begins to flail, he doesn't try to cover it up. He instead offers an aside (`I'm not amusing you at all, am I?") or a conciliatory rep of push-ups to let viewers know, "We are in this together." As a result, Conan's mail is surprisingly tribal, filled with artwork and worship from a broad array of viewers--the mail board on an average week holds devotion from an 11-year-old who makes a habit of sneaking downstairs to watch, and respectful requests for autographed publicity shots from corporate types who unwind with the show each night.
For those who have discovered it, the new Late Night has found its place as a nightly cultural ritual. It has a personalized and cultivated classic sense fostered by Conan's own penchant for past-hipster 1950's graphics and classic Hollywood photo stills, and a first-rate jazz ensemble fading to commerical with bop-style selections. The peppering of slightly-off Lampoon humor and cutting-edge musical guests propels the show out of the starchy promotion-circuit interview format. After nearly nine months of gestating under constant media scrutiny of the now-hyper-commercialized late night niche, the energy at the tapings has perceptibly and sharply mounted to a proudly fevered level since times of leaner demand, which were as recent as January. A good portion of the throng mobbing the NBC studio area must now be turned away each night. Despite media speculation that Conan should fear the warm breath of Greg Kinnear or Jon Stewart on his neck, NBC firmly stands behind Conan, who beams into roughly two million homes nightly, up six percent in last quarter's ratings and rising. Surging-cautiously--on this momentum and preparing for the renewed inspection of May sweeps, Conan reflects on his first year.
LETTERMAN ON CONAN:
'The more I watch the show, I realize you guys do an incredible amount of comedy and stuff that is produced that is very high-level. And the volume and the quality of the stuff just knocks me out, and I think you've really done a great job to carve out a wonderful identity for yourselves.'
When you started, you said that your vision of the show was less of a talk format, rather more in the style of a Steve Allen repertory variety hour. What do you think of the genesis of your show now?
I think anything creative is organic. Great books are not thought out before you start to write them. I'm not comparing this show to a great work of art, but having done creative stuff for a long time, I believe that it's organic. People always use words when they're describing a show, 'well they're retooling it' or something like that, but that never quite works for me. In any great show... if you look at the early "Honeymooners" they're not like the classic "Honeymooners"--Ralph's just kind of mean, and there's not a lot of humor. I think generally things in life are like a bell curve, they just come into being and that's how anything organic works.
It's almost exactly one year since you got the show. At this mark, are you assessing and setting up a new strategy for the show's next year?
I think that I've learned a lot, an incredible amount, in doing six months of shows. I think my core beliefs of what the show should be haven't changed, and I don't think they're going to change, and I don't think they're going to change, because my personality isn't going to change. My sense of humor has always been kind of random. I like things to be silly, I like nonsensical humor, I like things that are fanciful. To that extent, I think the show has done that. It's playful, and has a real silliness to it. We mix up the order of when you're going to see comedy and try a lot of things, because I don't want people to think 'oh yeah, that's what they do on that show.' Because it's not. The show changes as we go. I think we're along at least part of the curve.
Tell me why you have an all-male writing staff.
When we were soliciting over the summer to get writers, 99 percent of submissions were from men. Not that many women even submitted material. I'd like nothing more than to hire a fine woman writer and have her on staff. I have nothing against half the staff being women. I don't know what it is. You can say its societal, yeah, there is probably a strong link between comedy and men. A lot of people think we're frustrated little boys and this is what we go, and certainly, it's possible.
It's not attributable to your fear of girls and marriage.
Oh no. That's very Irish Catholic thing, having a fascination with women... a lot of comedy for me has always been in my failings. It's a fertile area, if you start to talk about how your prom date didn't go well. Look at Seinfeld-a lot of stand-up comedy is about relationships not working out. It gets harder once you have your own TV show, people are like 'yeah right, you have problems.' It's funny that I interact with supermodels, because I was this guy who had trouble getting a date in high school.
So this is basically the world's largest personal videodate ad.
Yes, That's why I did it. Mmmm, I have to watch out because I'm going out with some-body right now. You have to be careful. You don't want to make the other person angry.
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