Conan O’Brien, the man once saddled with limp ratings, pin-drop buzz, and daily threats of cancellation now anchors one of the most revered, inventive comedy hours on television. Don’t believe us? After scoring eight Emmy nominations for writing, ”Late Night” just received its first Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series nod. Still don’t believe us? Maybe David Letterman can convince you: ”In the world of television, 10 years is a true accomplishment. Conan deserves all the credit in the world.”
As ”Late Night With Conan O’Brien” prepares to ring in the milestone with a 90-minute prime-time special on Sept. 14, we asked Conan & Co. to reflect on a decade of deliriousness.
A LONG SHOT’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
[In 1993, David Letterman bolted for CBS, leaving NBC desperate for a 12:30 a.m. replacement.]
RICK LUDWIN (NBC SENIOR VP, ”LATE NIGHT”) Whoever was going to get this job was going to be somebody who frankly had nothing to lose. If you took that job and failed, you were likely to be through in show business.
[NBC enlisted ”SNL” creator Lorne Michaels to oversee the show. After O’Brien, a former ”SNL” writer who at the time was a ”Simpsons” scribe, passed on producing the new ”Late Night,” Michaels offered him a crack at the hosting chair. An audition went down on the ”Tonight Show” set in Burbank.]
LUDWIN He looked like he just fell out of bed at his fraternity house. [But] the wit was there from day one.
CONAN O’BRIEN I was much better at my audition than I was for the first year of my show.
[Meanwhile, Garry Shandling took himself out of contention. In April 1993, O’Brien was announced as the new host of ”Late Night.”]
O’BRIEN When I got the call, I wasn’t, ”Yeehaw! Let’s go have some champagne!” I was, ”Okay, time to suffer.” Part of me in a sick way liked the idea: ”I’m going to go get the s— kicked out of me for two years and I’m going to be mocked and ridiculed but slowly over time, the show’s going to get better and better.” It’s like a Catholic masturbatory fantasy.
[The gamble was on. Studio 6A, Letterman’s old home, was gutted. Robert Smigel, an ”SNL” scribe and O’Brien pal, was tapped as head writer; Bruce Springsteen’s drummer, Max Weinberg, was hired as bandleader. And O’Brien met with actor-writer Andy Richter at an L.A. deli.]
O’BRIEN It was a really hot day. I got a Coke, and Andy said, ”I’ll have the borscht.” And they brought this big bowl of borscht, which looked like blood. Within 45 seconds, I was thinking ”I love this guy and I want him on the show. We’ll figure out what he does later on.”
[”Late Night With Conan O’Brien” debuted on Sept. 13, 1993; in the first few weeks, signature bits like In the Year 2000, Clutch Cargo, and If They Mated were launched.]
ROBERT SMIGEL We were getting bad reviews fairly quickly, but at the same time I was getting congratulatory phone calls from people in comedy. George Meyer, legendary ”Simpsons” writer, calls and he’s like, ”Amazing. You guys figured out how to replace Letterman. It’s completely original and funny.” And at the same time we’re hearing ”This is a disaster.”
O’BRIEN The most compelling TV we ever did was the first year because we were trying stuff that was like, ”Oh, my God, they shouldn’t have tried that.” We had a bird that came down halfway through Mary Tyler Moore’s charming story and it goes [makes squawking noise], and I’d say, ”You just said the secret word!” and we startled her. You can’t drop a bird on Mary Tyler Moore’s head halfway through an interview.
[The show’s ratings were lackluster (averaging 2 million viewers the first year); reviews were even worse. (Washington Post critic Tom Shales called ”Late Night” ”roadkill.”) Audience seats had to be filled out by NBC interns.]
O’BRIEN [Then-NBC Entertainment president] Warren Littlefield told me ”You have to fire Andy Richter.”
ANDY RICHTER I wasn’t aware of them trying to do that. I was just ”the other one” and they didn’t need to talk to me.
WARREN LITTLEFIELD Early on, those two guys were awkward together. We wondered if having Andy was holding back Conan’s growth.
SMIGEL It did make things more challenging for Conan that we picked a guy who’s actually funny. It might be easier for him if he had a doormat so he wouldn’t have to worry about making room for Andy to get in his lines.
O’BRIEN I told [Littlefield], ”I’m working on a different role for Andy.” And Andy kept being there and being there. And to his credit, when it was clear that Andy was hilarious, he called me up and said, ”I was wrong about Andy.”