Conan Celebrates Decade On "Late Night"
Comedian Defies Early Predictions
September 12, 2003|By ROGER CATLIN; Courant TV Critic
When a tall, skinny comic made his late-night debut a decade ago, with his architecturally impossible orange pompadour and grinning sidekick, nobody really expected him to be able to fill the "Late Night" slot vacated by David Letterman.
Not even NBC, where "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" made its bow 10 years ago.
"The network suggested week-to-week renewals initially, which seemed unprecedented and insane," O'Brien recalls. "That wasn't a fun time for us."
"People said, 'You'll never make it. We're putting our money on Chevy."'
But Chevy Chase's show (which coincidentally also began 10 years ago this month) was canceled by Fox after a few weeks.
And now, on the verge of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien's Tenth Anniversary Special" airing Sunday in prime time, "Conan is having the last laugh," says NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker. "I really cannot think of a better story in all of television."
"Going through that gauntlet, going through the thousand-mile-long spanking machine that we went through, I think, helped us earn the right to be there," O'Brien says.
At first, reviews were savage. Some called the show "roadkill."
"I thought the reviews were fair when they went after me as a performer and a late-night host because I just didn't have the confidence and the chops yet," O'Brien says. "If you looked at me in 1993, I was a young man trying very hard to do a good job at telling jokes. Well, no one wants to see that.
"But I thought that they were unfair when they attacked the comedy because I always thought the comedy was good."
Indeed, he says, "that first week of our show that was so hated, 'Year 2000,' 'Clutch Cargo,' 'Actual Items,' the Max Weinberg 7 are all there."
So was the oddball computer morphing feature "If They Mated." And to begin a decade of cutting-edge music -- which included a five-night stand of the White Stripes last spring -- the first week also included the first U.S. TV appearance by Radiohead.
Eventually, college kids began tuning in and filling the seats at Studio 6A, where Letterman once reigned and Conan now ruled.
The turning point may have come five months into the show, when Letterman himself became a guest in his own old studio.
"It was a great thing because I think it got people to come back and look at the show again who thought, 'Well, that thing's dead,' [and] you know, 'He's an idiot' and walked away," O'Brien says. "And then they came back and maybe said, 'OK, I still don't love him maybe, but Dave seems to like him so ...' So I've always been indebted to Dave for doing that.
"I think it made a big difference. I think it may have helped keep me on the air."
The following year, O'Brien took his "Clutch Cargo" act -- in which pictures of public figures are given unnaturally super-imposed mouths, as they were in the obscure 1950s cartoon -- to the White House Correspondents dinner, where President Clinton was reduced to tears watching his "Clutch Cargo" version of himself repeatedly saying "Whooeee!"
It became clear that O'Brien's skewed humor was ready for the wider world. Last year, he hosted the Emmy Awards to solid reviews. His show, which has been nominated eight times for outstanding writing, is up later this month for outstanding variety/comedy show Emmy for the first time. He's also reaching a whole new audience with next-day replays on Comedy Central at 6 p.m. weeknights.
There's much for the prime-time special Sunday to celebrate, including the first episode done entirely in clay animation last May, his performance with Bruce Springsteen and the band last December, Jim Carrey talking with Stephen Hawking via cellphone and the various adventures of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. "When Triumph went to the 'Star Wars' [movie] line [in 2002], I think that was the funniest thing on TV that year," O'Brien says.
O'Brien summarizes the special as largely "a big old pat on the back for yours truly, frankly. I don't think it's going to accomplish anything other than, 'Check out these clips of me!' and 'Here's the check.' 'Thank you!"'
Shot at New York's Beacon Theatre, the special will feature Richter, returning after he left the show three years ago; the show's music director, E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, back briefly from his tour with Bruce Springsteen; and appearances from Jack Black, Will Ferrell and others.
"It's important to take an hour-and-a-half and say, 'Look what we've done.' I think we've done some really great late-night television that stands up to all the good late-night television of the last 50 years on NBC," O'Brien says.
"And who knows? It may pay dividends when NBC and I have a big falling out in about a year-and-a-half. Because then it's, 'UPN, here I come!"
"The Late Night With Conan O'Brien Tenth Anniversary Special" is on Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on NBC (locally on WVIT, Channel 30). "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" airs weeknights at 12:35 on NBC and repeats on Comedy Central weeknights at 6.
Late Night with Conan O'Brien: 10th Anniversary Special (2003) TV Special
Cast: Andy Richter, Conan O'Brien, Max Weinberg