Features

Hangin' 10

On his anniversary, CONAN O'BRIEN recounts how he rode the wave from laughingstock to late night's foremost lunatic in one decade flat

A hot, drizzly night. August. Rockefeller Center. Passersby jam up against security barricades, trying to sneak a peek as Conan O'Brien tapes promos for the 10th-anniversary celebration of his late-night talk show on NBC. After zinging the lens with prepared one-liners -- ''When I started, they said I wasn't going to last six months. Ha! Stupid doctors!'' -- he scribbles autographs, nods at shout-outs from fans, and is shepherded away by his staff, whom he mock-abuses. (To one: ''Don't speak to me directly.'' To another: ''You're fired.'' To another: ''Take his job.'')

Safely ensconced in an Italian restaurant a few minutes later, he reflects poignantly on the hubbub. ''Whenever there's a lot of people staring at me, I'm always thinking 'Here comes the gun,''' he says. ''If I start thinking 'We've finally made it!' a guy would leap out of the crowd with a thick wax mustache and say, 'Now Carson Daly is 12:30!''' Assuming an anchorman's stentorian voice, he continues: ''He fired four shots. Conan slumped quietly to the floor. His last words were 'Tell the Masturbating Bear I love him.''' With that, the 40-year-old host turns straight-faced. ''Never say we finally made it. Never say it.''

Okay, how about this: 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. ''The last 10 years have been like a Bataan Death March that ended at a Dairy Queen,'' notes O'Brien. ''Long, arduous, difficult -- but ultimately happy and refreshing.''

I. A LONG SHOT'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

''The perfect world would be where The Conan O'Brien Show would be on, and you'd be reading my short story somewhere and wearing my designer jeans,'' O'Brien told The Harvard Crimson upon graduating in 1985. Designer dreams were soon crushed, though, and he pursued comedy. He applied to write for Late Night With David Letterman in 1987 -- but was rejected. Eventually, O'Brien got a writing gig with Saturday Night Live, then joined The Simpsons. In 1993, 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 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.

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