Nice Guys Finish Late
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.
OK, I'll cease this line of questioning. Tell me about the interviews that threaten to go right out of control. Eartha Kitt, Gilbert Gottfried...
When people get up and start running around, that's good. We're on at 12:30 at night, so we want people to go [feigning waking] 'Hey what's going on? Look!' When they'd show Carson's 'best of' clips, it's always someone getting out of control or something happening unexpectedly. It isn't so much the prepared bits. What's more embarrassing is an interview where nothing interesting comes out. It's good when somebody walks out and their dress almost falls off [supermodel Tyra] or they bring out a farting machine [Leslie Nielsen]. That's good TV. You remember it. Bad TV is when somebody comes out and sits down and nothing amusing comes of it.
What side projects might we find you in? Cameos in SNL movies? Calvin Klein spokesmodel?
I'm going to be travelling and singing around the country, mostly gospel. Honestly, I've had some offers to do commercials. When would I do anything? Look what I do. You've seen what goes into a show. There is no way. Five days a week, 49 weeks a year, it's insane. I couldn't even be in a celebrity golf tournament if I wanted to.
Is it now difficult to conduct life as an average Joe when you visit Boston?
I was just back, it was fun going to Grendel's... People know who I am and they'll ask me to come over to their table to wish someone happy birthday, and I like that, I enjoy it. People are always really enthusiastic and responsive, they'll come up to me and tell me things they like about the show. Let's face it, I'm on the lower rung of the celebrity ladder. It's not like I'm a huge rock star. It doesn't get weird. I walk in and people say 'Hey Conan, how's it going?' and I'll go have a beer.
You did a Lampoon piece-about a recurring nightmare that someone steals your elaborately set up punchline. Do you still have that dream?
Now my anxiety dreams are that I walk out and there's no audience or that I've broken a $250,000 television camera. Your anxiety dreams are just replaced by new anxiety dreams. I was really into the idea, especially when I was in college--when you're in college, you're an idiot about life, or at least I was--the idea that, if you could get through the problems in your life and accomplish things, you'd have no more problems. I think the pressure of the show is tough, but then I think--I haven't had kids yet.
You've said that there's something terrifying about getting exactly what you want.
There's part of you that has the fear that you might not like it. It's what you really want to do, but now you have to go actually do it. That's what's scary about it. If all your life you just want to be a fireman, and you study, then you finally get to be a fireman, the hell of it is: What if the first day, the hat doesn't fit? Or you just don't like it? That was something that worried me over the summer. I could imagine what it was like to do one show, but you can't imagine what it's like to do 140 shows. To put a lot of comedy together, to really be on top of what's funny to me about the guests, what can we talk about that's interesting--and make it all fit into an hour. Then do it five nights a week. And when one doesn't go so well, come back and do another one. That was intimidating. But now that's sort of gone away and now the good news for me, personally, is that this is what I want to do, and now I'm doing it. I've done almost 140 hours of television and I want to do 140 more.
So the hat does fit.
The hat fits. I like being a fireman. I'm not saying I'm the greatest fireman in the world, but I'd like to learn to be the greatest fireman.
Is there anything that you yet want that you haven't got?
You always want more. That's the sad thing about human nature. It's what makes us sick. I've got the show and that's what I want. I want the show to reach its potential, and I know the potential is amazing. My job is to do this show that I really like and always make it better. I want this thing to be as great as it can be and I'll die a happy man. I'll enjoy it, do it full out, play with it, and be honest with it, and good things will come of that. Will I be on in a year? Yeah I think so. There are no guarantees of that, but I think so. The network is happy-the growth in the numbers and the ratings and just the reaction I get from young people-those are indications to me that I'm doing the right thing.
The show is very much a personalized reflection of you, an invitation to an hour of hanging out and having a good time. Does that make the criticism especially hard for you?
Some of the criticism is valuable. You go, `oh, it's true, I'm not good enough at the yet, I could get better at this, I could get better at that.' If you're one of thirty people making a show behind the scenes, and people don't like the show of course that's easier to take than `It's the Conan O'Brien show' and some critic decides he doesn't like it. Yes, it is harder. For the critics who say they like it, it makes the highs much higher, but the lows are... when someone says they don't like the show, they're saying they don't' like me.
'In general, you can only listen to so much of it. If I had one piece of advice to say to you about criticism, it is that difficulty or fear is not an indication that you're wrong.'
Critics have been excoriating. You've been subject to recent headlines like USA Today's "Conan: Still No Reason to Stay Up" and multiple mentions in Esquire's "Dubious Achievement" issue. Entertainment Weekly took a shot below the belt in its Oscar review with "Oh Whoopi, even Conan would be funnier."
There is a level to his criticism which is that it's the Thing to do. David Letterman goes to CBS, and his show is big, and so NBC is portrayed in the press as the people who let him go, therefore any decision they make is going to be stupid. I think there are some critics that look at this show as 'It's the show that's not David Letterman.' My feeling is I'm not going to do his show. I'm not going to do anything like his show. I'm a different person I'm not going to try to top his act.
David Letterman himself came on the show and he's a sincere person. He went out of his way backstage and on the air to compliment the show. That's someone whose opinion I respect. Because he knows what it takes to do a show.
A year ago at this time, when I found out even the possibility of doing this, I said to myself, 'Boy, whoever follows David Letterman, regardless of what they do, is going to get the shit kicked out of them for a while And Lorne Michaels told me, 'You're going to take a pounding for a while. Are you up for that?' I said, 'Yes'. Is this the easiest way to do a show? No. it's not. The easiest way to do a show is get your show, do it in relative obscurity, have it be in kind of a safe place, on for a couple of years and let people slowly find it, and then they start writing reviews a couple years into it, that kind of thing. That's easier to do. Am I complaining? No.
In general, you can only listen to so much of it. If I had one piece of advice to say to you about criticism, it is that difficulty or fear is not an indication that you're wrong.
CONAN O'BRIEN'S 9TH ANNUAL COLLEGE BRAND
Up-and-coming bands enter to
208 E. 51st Street, Box 316
New York, NY 10022-6501
By May 31, 1994
Tapes must be on 1/2" VHS tape and run no longer than 5 minutes. (75 percent of performers in the band must still be in college.)