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Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Examining Conan's Humble Late Night Beginnings

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

One of my favorite things about the Paley Center is getting to see beginnings. Whether it’s the first Tonight Show, the first Honeymooners sketch, or whatever, even if something isn’t fully formed, I love being able to see the base line. Today we’re going to look the very first Late Night with Conan O’Brien, which demonstrates the very humble beginnings of one of the funniest late night hosts in television history.

A lot has been written about the circumstances that led to Conan ascending to the late night throne (The Late Shift and The War for Late Night by Bill Carter are great choices) but it’s important to note that besides a few random appearances on Saturday Night Live while he was a writer, this high-profile gig was the first time Conan had appeared on television. To make the jump from being the new kid writer at the Simpsons, then in it’s fourth season, to the guy taking over for cult hero David Letterman was completely unfathomable. People expected a marquee name like Gary Shandling or Dana Carvey to take over, both of whom NBC pursued. Conan had some big shoes to fill.

Perhaps the most frequently written about thing from the first Late Night with Conan O’Brien is the cold open, which dealt with these expectations. The short version: Conan walks to work, carefree and whistling to himself as everyone stops him to say “lotta pressure” and “you better be as good as Letterman.” He goes into his office, shuts the door and slips a noose around his neck. It’s smart in the way that it immediately diffuses the expectation for Conan to live up to the hype, and sets a definite tone that would last through the peak years of O’Brien’s hosting.

As someone who grew up with Late Night, it’s interesting to see what’s already in place here in the very first episode. Andy Richter, Max Weinberg and announcer Joel Godard are all there. The desk piece Conan and Andy do after the monologue was “Actual Items,” in which they show ridiculous items from small town newspapers that are clearly too insane to have actually appeared, a mainstay that would be done on the show over the next sixteen years. But what I think is even more interesting is what’s different here. The most glaring (and potentially charming) is Conan himself. He’s (obviously) much younger, and clearly rather uncomfortable being thrust into the limelight. Instead of a subtle laugh after a monologue joke that tickles him, Young Conan yelps out a high-pitched, single note chuckle.

In the middle of the show, Conan segues into a short commercial for Bob Costas’ show which once followed his, which is clearly something he made just for the show in which Bob announces that he’ll be interviewing the surviving cast members of The Wizard of Oz which includes an 84-year-old munchkin and a guy who played one of those trees that threw apples, still in costume. But one thing that I wish had continued on longer into Conan’s Late Night was the number of sketches that appear in the show. At the very end of the evening, Conan says goodnight and begins singing “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music. As he does the camera then cuts away to a nun, bawling in the audience, then back to Conan, then to a Nazi SS officer, also crying. Earlier in the episode, guest John Goodman’s interview is suddenly interrupted by audience member George Wendt, who then challenges Goodman to a leg wrestling match, which ends in a draw. The show’s atmosphere feels like a controlled chaos, and unlike any other, in which funny things could happen at any moment, and there was no way of knowing where they were going to come from next.

But is it still funny? Yes it is. Quite surprisingly, 95% of this particular episode of Late Night is pretty timeless. The bulk of the monologue is about how this is Conan’s first show, then they’re off to the races with what remains a solidly written collection of silly comedy pieces. And why shouldn’t it still be funny? Beyond Conan and Andy, the original writing staff of the show is like the comedy nerd dream team, with such luminaries as Louis CK, Bob Odenkirk, Robert Smigel, and Dino Stamatopoulos. If those guys can’t write something that’s funny almost twenty years later, then I don’t know who can. Watching Young Conan make his way through his first episode is pretty exciting, but as you do, one can’t help but think about what lies ahead for him, and how he’s soon going to figure out what to do with that limp head of hair he was sporting in 1993.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

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  • Lord Haw Haw

    Don't look now, but that "weeping SS officer" has a Twitter feed.

    @ErichvonPauli

  • rubber cat@twitter

    I've seen that first episode and it set the tone of the show perfectly. I never got why people (Conan included) insisted the show was awful for the first 3 or so years.

  • GothamTommy@twitter

    Late Night w/ Conan, once it hit a stride, became Conan playing the straight-man to the wackiness he was surrounded by. It set the tone for the show and a generation that followed it.

    My biggest problem with post-Late Night Conan is his deviation from this. Conan acted as the protagonist for us while the rest of the show fell into anarchy around him. When he reached Tonight, he started appearing in sketches which resembles Carson more than himself. I feel like Conan on TBS follows this trend to treat it like "the big show" rather than the origins that made the act funny.

    Also, I wouldn't be so bitter about the change in the act if it was easy to view old Late Night sketches in the comfort of my own home.

  • http://recursivebee.blogspot.com Patrick Mortensen

    The details of this may be off, but there was an early-in-the-run interview with Steve Buscemi where mid-interview Buscemi reached for a cup and gave it a weird look before taking a sip, and Conan said, "What's the matter?" and Buscemi said, "Oh, I was just making sure it wasn't skull juice." Then they cut to a guy standing in front of a brick wall saying, "Skull juice! Get your skull juice!" and then back to the interview, never referencing it again.
    The early days really felt like they were reinventing everything. It was really fun.

  • that guy

    I'd like to see Conan do fewer monologue jokes. Perhaps because he was never a nightclub comic, his monologue is consistently the weakest part of the show, and I think it's one of the reasons his ratings were so low during his abbreviated Tonight Show run.
    When he started, he was doing something like 4-5 jokes a night, and they weren't all topical. Today, his monologues go on for five or six minutes and cover the same current events that every other talk show host is joking about.
    He's obviously trying to compete with Leno, Letterman, et.al. who do long monologues, but it's never been his strength. Conan should look to his past to realize this and cut the monologue down by a couple of minutes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

    To the Paley Center!