Conan O’Brien is a television host, comedian, writer and producer best known for hosting the late night talk shows Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Conan. He is now the longest-running talk show host still on the air and in my opinion, still one of the funniest despite the growing competition since he first came onto the scene in 1993.
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1963, Conan O’Brien attended Harvard University in the eighties, majoring in history and literature. He was also a writer, and eventually president, of the college humor magazine The Harvard Lampoon, proving he knew how to make people laugh even in his college days.
After graduating magna cum laude in 1985, O’Brien moved to Los Angeles to join the writing staff of HBO sketch comedy series Not Necessarily the News (1983-1990), a show that was considered the inspirational predecessor to other news satires like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Last Week Tonight, and was also the first professional television writing gig for both O’Brien and fellow Harvard student Greg Daniels, who would go on to adapt The Office for America and co-create Parks and Recreation.
After two years as a writer on that show, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels hired Conan O’Brien as a writer for SNL in 1988, and O’Brien remained there for three years, winning an Emmy alongside his fellow writers in the process.
A credit to his talent as a writer, as soon as he quit SNL, The Simpsons immediately offered him a writing job, which was a huge deal because as O’Brien put it, “everyone wanted to be on that show, but they never hired.”
Initially nervous and intimidated by the writing staff, O’Brien quickly fit in and was one of the show’s funniest writers from 1991 to 1993, writing such fan and critical favorites as “Marge vs. the Monorail,” “Homer Goes to College,” and “New Kid on the Block.” O’Brien became a producer and would have likely become the showrunner if he didn’t find his ultimate calling as a stage performer.
So how did Conan O’Brien go from comedy writer to talk show host?
When David Letterman decided to leave Late Night on NBC to become the host of The Late Show on CBS, Late Night executive producer Lorne Michaels approached O’Brien about helping produce the post-Letterman iteration of the show. However, Conan’s growing confidence as a performer (in part helped by his improv training at L.A.-based improv group The Groundlings) gave Lorne and the NBC executives the idea to take a chance on letting Conan take over as the host himself, even though as a performer he was completely unknown to television audiences.
The test taping went well enough that NBC offered Conan the job, and just like that he went from obscurity to fame.
Late Night with Conan O’Brien premiered on NBC in 1993 and had gotten mostly negative reviews from critics who called him unfunny and unprepared for late night. Actually the show was under constant threat of being cancelled, to the point where Conan and his writing team made jokes about it on the show itself.
Luckily NBC kept it on the air because as it turns out, the more you do something, the better you get at doing it.
Critics pinpoint that the moment the show got better is directly related to the moment Conan O’Brien became a better performer. Gradually, he started finding his voice, his banter with sidekick Andy Richter got funnier, the sketches became more popular, and his fanbase consisted mainly of young males, which was the most coveted demographic in TV.
Conan O’Brien was now using the awkwardness that critics disliked about him to comedic effect and he made it a part of his performance style.
David Letterman was the first person to bring irreverance to the mainstream in late night programming but O’Brien took it to a whole new level, paving the way for the edgy and sophomoric humor that is now common in late night among people like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers and others.
Among the writing talent on the show was Bob Odenkirk (SNL, Mr. Show), Louis C.K. (Louie, Horace and Pete), Dino Stamatopolous (Moral Orel, Community) and Robert Smigel (SNL, The Dana Carvey Show). Smigel, by the way, was not only the head writer of the show in its early days but also the voice and performer behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who made his first appearance on this show before becoming a celebrity in his own right.
The writing was so good now that it got nominated for an Emmy regularly, and now Conan O’Brien was one of the biggest stars in comedy.
O’Brien hosted Late Night from 1993 to 2009 and would go on to take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno for a short period before NBC gave the show back to Jay Leno in a surprising and highly publicized move which caused Conan to leave NBC for another network.
Still in high demand, networks like FOX, HBO, Comedy Central and USA considered giving Conan his own talk show, but he eventually landed on TBS where he remains to this day, Monday through Thursday at 11pm.
As a fan of Conan O’Brien’s irreverant comedy, I was disappointed to learn that he would leave broadcast television for cable (I didn’t own cable in 2009) but thanks to the magic of YouTube, I still regularly watch his monologues, interviews and comedy sketches to this day, and he hasn’t lost that wacky sense of humor that helped him gain popularity in the nineties.
Fun Fact: Conan O’Brien is literally the first person I ever followed on Twitter. Ever since he first started his Twitter account to communicate to his fans when NBC’s contract prevented him from performing on any other network until his Tonight Show contract was up, he has been one of the most consistently funny Twitter users.
I especially love his remote pieces, like when he travels to other countries like Japan and Cuba (he is the first late night talk show host to ever film his show in Cuba) and frequent segments like “Clueless Gamer,” in which Conan plays video games he knows nothing about, have kept him relevant with young people into the era of video sharing.
Conan O’Brien has also been known to produce other shows using his own production company Conaco, including Eagleheart (Adult Swim), People of Earth (TBS) and Final Space (TBS).
He has also acted many times, mainly as himself (30 Rock, The Simpsons) but sometimes as a character (Riddler in The Lego Batman Movie).
His comedic influences include David Letterman, Robin Williams and Bob Hope, but he himself has influenced Mindy Kaling, Pete Holmes and James Corden.
O’Brien recently announced that in celebration of the 25th anniversary of his late night debut, over 4,000 of the shows he has made throughout his late night career will be available to stream in 2019. Works for me because I can never have enough Conan. In the meantime I’ll be on YouTube and Twitter.