Dogging the Wag
Here's an archive of articles about Conan O'Brien. It includes the following article, by Conan himself, which was published in the New York Times on September 13, 1993, the day his show debuted:
By Conan O'Brien
There has been much speculation about the new 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien.' Little is known about the host, and even less about the show's format. Last week, this writer had the opportunity to watch a test show in Rockefeller Center's legendary studio 6-A. Frankly, I was not impressed.
The crowd was visibly eager to like the young newcomer, but some seemed puzzled by the radical new set. The backdrop, consisting of 15-foot representations of Mr. O'Brien's laughing head, loomed over his desk and chair, both carved from illegally imported African ivory. While this was somewhat unsettling, an aura of eager anticipation still hung in the air.
Until, that is, the new Late Night band began to play. Composed of musicians cut by the Boston Pops, the band lurched into an interminable version of 'Waltzing Matilda,' apparently the show's theme song. The bandleader, a surly cellist, refused to make eye contact with anyone and hissed at a young girl who tried to clap along. As the music sputtered to a flaccid conclusion, thick jets of foam were dumped on the audience from hidden ceiling ducts. As people wiped the stinging lather from their eyes, Mr. O'Brien jumped out from behind a curtain and cheerfully quipped, 'Ha, ha, you're all foamy!' Unfazed by the lukewarm reaction to this ill-conceived prank, Mr. O'Brien launched into his monologue. Whipping out a large book, he read a string of childish 'knock-knock' jokes. While the material was fair, Mr. O'Brien's delivery was halting, and he paused several times to adjust his reading glasses.
The worse was yet to come. Strutting arrogantly to his desk, Mr. O'Brien tried to converse briefly with his sidekick, an elderly Irish priest. But the old man seemed confused, and despite constant goading from Mr. O'Brien, sat in stony silence.
Sensing a loss of momentum, Mr. O'Brien quickly launched into a 'Top Ten' list, something he'd repeatedly told the press he would never do. The list was rife with misspellings, and three of the 10 entries read 'joke to come.' Moments later, he tried playfully flipping a pencil at a camera, but missed and stuck a woman in the eye. 'At least it wasn't me,' quipped the first guest, the former Mets outfielder Vince Coleman. O'Brien burst into laughter at this distasteful comment. 'Now we're cooking with gas,' said the cocky new voice of 'Late Night.'
Mr. O'Brien's guests that evening also included the deputy director of New York's wastewater collection bureau, the editor of the NBC inter-office newsletter and a man who could eat oranges without getting any juice on his shirt (although he failed to do so on camera). Inexplicably, all the guests were introduced at the same time. Mr. O'Brien then asked each, in turn, his favorite color. To every answer, he snorted that the chosen color was 'for girls.'
During a commercial break, several NBC executives entered the audience and asked for volunteers to hold up a gaudy 'Nobody Beats Conan' banner, but the crowd jeered bitterly and one youth kicked the sign.
The last 20 minutes of the program consisted of Mr. O'Brien performing a strange, snake-like dance in front of his desk as audience members filed out in disgust. 'You'll be back!' he shouted several times, until the entire studio was empty (except for the orange-eater and Mr. Coleman, who giggled frenetically under the closing credits).
As much as this writer would like to root for Mr. O'Brien, one can't help but have grave doubts about his prospects. Despite the considerable power of his raw sexuality and mesmerizing intellectual presence, this 'Late Night' may very well end up the late 'Late Night.' Or not, I gotta go.
When Conan was in high school, he won a national writing contest and the Boston Globe wrote this article about him.
Here's an excerpt:
O'Brien's English teacher, Christopher Reimann, says Conan's writing is very good. "Unlike most high school students, he is able to communicate what he is thinking very clearly. That can be a two-edged sword. If your thinking is confused, you have to have the ability to handle ambiguity. I criticize Conan's papers not on a high school level but on a more mature basis and he handles criticism fairly well. It is clearly important to him."
O'Brien says, "There's not that much that separates me from other students, except that I take English very seriously. If I get a mediocre mark in math, I let it slide, but not in English."
Adds Conan, "I wrote to E.B. White, one of the writers I admire most, once and asked him how he handled criticism of his writing. You put so much of yourself into it that it's hard not to take criticism personally. White wrote back that he never minded critics much except when they had their facts wrong."
"I like Hemingway, too. He has a vocabulary about as extensive as mine, but he puts it together well. And Woody Allen. He's made up a style of his own. Everytime he starts with a thoughtful sentence he slips in something totally absurd."
Asked about the name, Conan, O'Brien says it is not for mystery writer Conan Doyle, but for Gaelic priests. "Something so simple that you can't make a nickname out of it.
"College? I'll take the best one that picks me. I tell my parents that next year they'll have to ask someone else to drive the little kids around and do errands, but I'll miss it just the same. There are a lot of real characters in this family."
Of course, Conan went on to Harvard, where he double-majored in literature and American history. In 1985, he graduated magna cum laude.
In the summer after it was announced Conan would replace Letterman, there was a lot of curiosity about who the heck this Conan O'Brien fellow was, so, in the July 1993 issue of Esquire, people who knew Conan were asked to provide some illumination. Unfortunately, this article is not in the archive, but, since I own a copy of the magazine, I can provide the following excerpts:
Thomas O'Brien, Conan's father: At some point in grade school, he developed the idea that his career would be as a professional teaser. He'd go from door-to-door with his kit and his apparatus teasing small children, which he happened to be very good at. But the straight-faced premise was that somehow this would be a career, that people would pay him for this. Which is absurd -- and he was aware of that -- that he was going to rise in his profession as a door-to-door, itinerant teaser.
Ruth O'Brien, Conan's mother:That's what the kids in the family called him: Tease Man. And that's what he called himself.
Jeff Young, Conan's high school English teacher: He was in a class of mine called Art of the Essay, and one of the writers we studied was E.B. White. He became quite enamored of White's style and at the same time wondered what it was like to be a writer -- which was his career goal at that point -- and how writers managed to fend off criticism and deal with praise. I suggested to him that he write to E.B. White and ask him. Which he did. I have a pretty clear memory of him running into class that year waving this letter from E.B. White. And I remember the essence of White's advice was not to be swayed either by public adulation or by public criticism but to remain true to your own voice and ideals and just write from your heart and that all the other stuff was external. I think that made a pretty big impression on Conan.
Eric Reiff, Conan's college roommate: I think the first piece he ever wrote for the Lampoon was this thing called "Conflict: The Sitcom," which was a parody of One Day at a Time. It was published in the magazine and senior editors came up to him -- Jeff Martin, who wrote for Letterman and The Simpsons, came up -- and said, "That's really great. That's great writing." That's pretty rare. They're a pretty horrible bunch.
Jeff Martin, Lampoon alumnus and former writer for Late Night with David Letterman and The Simpsons: The stuff he wrote that I liked the best was a bunch of Abe Lincoln comics. Just Abe Lincoln in odd situations, but always being very stern and statesmanlike. He'd be in a Soap Box Derby or something and a kid would be going like, "You won, Abe!" And Lincoln would be just sternly saying, "Yes, Corky, but not the race to unite our world."
Mike Reiss, Lampoon alumnus and former executive producer, The Simpsons: What made everyone take notice of the guy was that he had been elected president of the Lampoon in his sophomore year, which just never happened. People wanted to know: Who is this guy?
Jeff Martin: In 1985 five of us went down to Florida for spring training. Conan started telling people -- generally our waiters and waitresses when we'd eat out -- that he was Harry Morgan's grandson. Harry Morgan of M*A*S*H and Dragnet fame. We tried it on about ten different people. "You know, Harry Morgan? On M*A*S*H? Colonel Potter?" And they'd say, "Yeah." And he'd go, "He's my grandfather." And the reactions would run from people delighted and wanting to know all about life on the M*A*S*H set to "Oh, yeah? Who cares?" But I think most people believed it, because why in the world would you make that up?
Mike Myers, cast member, Saturday Night Live: First time I met Conan, I had just arrived. He goes, "Hi, welcome." We chatted for a bit. Then he left a note at my desk that said, "Dear Mike, I will destroy you. I don't know how and I don't know when. But oh, yes, I will destroy you. And the beautiful thing of it is that no one will know I had anything to do with it. Signed, Conan." This was my first day. So I kept that letter. It's up on my corkboard at work.
Lorne Michaels, executive producer, Saturday Night Live: We never really considered him as a sketch player because the way in which he is funny is at being himself. In the early days of the show, Chevy, who was a writer before we went on the air, was also somebody who was really funny in the office and funny being Chevy. And not to diminish Chevy's ability as a sketch player, but he wasn't the same kind of sketch player that Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi and Bill Murray were. Chevy was funny being Chevy, and I think Conan's funny being Conan.
Josh Weinstein, co-producer, The Simpsons: We were going to record an episode. We all sat down at the table. And then right before we got started, he got a call and left and then he never came back to the room. And then he came in later in the afternoon and said, "Well, I got the 12:30." He seemed sort of stunned. It was obviously the hugest thing that had ever happened to him.
Conan O'Brien: I got a telephone call from my agent in the morning and that day it just took off immediately. There wasn't time to just celebrate. I did not get a chance to say, "Wow, this is terrific." I just had to go immediately. They ran me over to the Leno show at the last minute. I just ran out there and said, "Hi, America -- I'll see you later." It's just crazy. The next morning I'm walking through Westwood and my picture's in USA Today. It's the worst picture of me ever taken. It looked like a satellite photo.... I've always fantasized about being famous. I've always fantasized about being a performer, having people recognize me. But that's a fantasy for a lot of people. When it really starts to happen, there is something creepy about it.