Conan O'Brien talks to The Dartmouth about career

by Ben Mandelker | 11/18/98 6:00am

Just over five years ago, David Letterman left his home at NBC's "Late Night" and moved to CBS where he continued his career with "The Late Show." The search for a "Late Night" replacement was highly publicized with rumors that Dana Carvey or Gary Shandling might take over the show. In the end, NBC surprised the public and chose the then-unknown Conan O'Brien to host "Late Night."

In his 12:35 a.m. perch, O'Brien has succeeded in making "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" the number one show in its time slot. His show has pulled in a strong college audience, earned several Emmy Award nominations and in 1997 won the Writers Guild Award for Best Writing.

However, the show's current success was not achieved without a fair share of hurdles. In its first two years, "Late Night" was assailed by several critics who predicted a quick and embarrassing network demise, but O'Brien managed to stick through the attacks.

"I drank a lot," O'Brien joked in an interview with The Dartmouth. "I shook my fist at the sky and said 'God, why have you forsaken me?' I just did that every night before I went to bed."

But on a more serious note, O'Brien claimed that he always had faith in the show. "I always thought the show had really funny comedy ... Andy's really funny. I knew I was good on my feet. Every night I'd read negative things, but then the studio audience would be laughing ... so we must be doing something right."

Still, even while the critics attacked, "Late Night" was still ahead of its competitors. "We were never doing that badly," O'Brien stated. "In the beginning, we were doing 1.7 and CBS was doing 1.2, and no one ever noticed that. We were the whipping boy."

At the same time, O'Brien did recognize the almost built-in opposition to new shows in general. "When something is brand new, it tends to look unfamiliar and not seem as polished as later."

While it may have taken time for the critics to warm up to the humor of "Late Night," O'Brien noticed a changing trend relatively early on. During the first season in the June of 1994, when most colleges had finished for the year, several students began filling the seats of the show.

"We had always filled our show, but just barely ... I remember just seeing all these kids in baseball caps standing in the aisle. I just remember going out there for my warm up and ... I thought 'something's happening.' They were really excited to see me and Andy," O'Brien said.

Soon, the ratings began to reflect the show's growing popularity as the Neilsons steadily increased. To keep the show on the upswing, O'Brien and the writers, presently led by head writer Jonathan Groff, have continually tried new comedy routines and characters.

"Sometimes you hit a plateau, and you feel like you are stuck in a groove, and then you'll have something new on your show. The first time we had Pimpbot 5000, suddenly all these kids starting saying, 'More Pimpbot!' ... Then we had this new character, Triumph, and suddenly people started saying 'More of that "to poop on dog.'" We're always looking for the next one of those. It's never over. Your job is never over."

While O'Brien doesn't always write all the comedy bits on the show, he is almost constantly a part of the creative process, whether it is revising monologue jokes or brainstorming about new ideas. This stems back to his successful career as a television writer.

Starting out

In the early 1980s, O'Brien, a Dartmouth applicant, attended Harvard University. Not really knowing what to do with his future at first, he toyed with the idea of going into government. However, he soon became involved in the Harvard Lampoon, a humor publication, and knew that he wanted to go into comedy.

After graduation, O'Brien and his friend Greg Daniels, who later became the creator of "King of The Hill," decided to seek work in television. There were no network jobs at the time; so the two applied to the cable comedy show, "Not Necessarily the News."

At first they weren't lucky. "They didn't have work for us, but then a slot opened in the fall of '85, and so we got a three week tryout writing quick physical comedy beats," O'Brien explained.

Ultimately, O'Brien and Daniels remained with the show for a year-and-a-half. On the side, O'Brien started to work on his performances skills. "I was taking improv classes. That's where I met Lisa Kudrow. I worked on industrial videos as an actor," he said.

After "Not Necessarily the News," O'Brien wrote for a "a couple of weird shows" such as the short lived news parody, "Wilton-North Report." Later, he worked under comedian Rich Hall, and then in late January of 1988, he and Greg Daniels were offered a job on "Saturday Night Live." "That was my big break," O'Brien said.

O'Brien spent the next few years forging important friendships with SNL producer Lorne Michaels and writer Robert Smigel who later were pivotal in the post-Letterman creation of "Late Night."

O'Brien then moved on to "The Simpsons" where he served as a writer and then supervising producer. It was then that NBC started looking for Letterman replacements.

'Late Night' move

O'Brien admits that he never thought to even try out. "I thought there was no way. I thought it was going to go to someone older than me. I was 29 years old at the time, and I wasn't performing ... It was Lorne Michaels who encouraged me to audition for it. I think his thinking was I can get the experience -- I could learn that over time -- but he just thought I had the raw abilities. He was taking a big risk."

Nevertheless, O'Brien auditioned. "They asked 'who are you?' and I told them all my ideas for the show," he said.

Ultimately, after a series of callbacks, he nabbed the job. Soon after he was paired with his sidekick, Andy Richter who was originally hired as a writer.

The show then went through its tumultuous first two years and eventually found security in its third season. Now the show has had a primetime fifth anniversary special and has surpassed the 1000-episode mark.

"I notice that people that are in college now, they sometimes don't even know that it [the show] was never doing well. I was at the University of Pennsylvania talking, and they sold out this huge amphitheater, and the kids were happy, and they didn't know that the networks almost fired Andy."

However, while many people identify the show on its own comedic merits, O'Brien acknowledges that the show's turnaround in popular acceptance has earned "Late Night" its own sort of character.

"It's given a legend," he said. "It's like a Clint Eastwood picture. These bad guys kick the hero and beat him up and leave him almost for dead, and then they leave. Meanwhile he somehow crawls to a waterhole and finds a woman to nurse him back to health while the bad guys sit around in the saloon and laugh. Suddenly they all turn around and Eastwood is standing there, and he beats them all up and sends them out of town."

Nevertheless, despite the Eastwood comparison, O'Brien is not interested in seeking revenge on his critics. "I've sort of made my peace. The fact that we got to do an anniversary show, I haven't gotten over that ... Sometimes the press tries to make me say 'Aren't you mad at us?' and I say 'No, that's the way it happened. Let's leave it alone.'"

Recently, several other late night talk shows such as "The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show," "Vibe" and "The Magic Hour" were attacked by critics just the way "Late Night" had been. However, none of these shows survived their hazing, and all are off the air.

"A lot of the ones that have failed have been syndicated, and syndicated shows don't get as much support sometimes because syndicators buy a show for a couple of months and then they can just dump it. There's no loyalty. If I had been a syndicated show, a lot of people would have dumped me," O'Brien explained. "At least I was with NBC. They didn't have an alternative."

O'Brien also noted that many of those failed talk shows were helmed by big stars who he believed weren't as hungry as he was to make his show work. "I had real incentive. I didn't want to be 'That Conan O'Brien guy -- he's the guy who got in over his head.'"

As a result, O'Brien has spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy trying to keep the show's quality up. "I don't think I could work that hard again as the first two years. I think you only have that energy once in your life. I think that is another reason why I had a will to make it work."

But in the end, O'Brien credits his success to one thing -- "My pact with the Satan. That's probably the main reason for my success."