When Conan O’Brien spoke at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner last night, he pulled out all the classic comedic stops: dying-media jokes, Mitt Romney riffs, and liberal use of a random gavel. Reviews from many of the celebrity guests were positive, but feedback on Twitter was, as it tends to be, a bit more mixed. We caught up with O’Brien at the Bloomberg/Vanity Fair after-party, where he talked about what it feels like to have the president as a warm-up act, his policy on reading reviews (he doesn’t), and his serendipitous discovery of that gavel.
How did you feel the speech went?
It was really fun. I talked to Seth Meyers, because I really liked what he did, and he said, actually, in a weird way, the President is a really good warm-up act. He’s so funny and he’s so good at this. He’s like the coolest President we’ve had, maybe since John F. Kennedy, and his timing is so good and he has such good material that you’re thinking two things at the same time: A) This is really hard to follow, which it is, and B) He’s warming them up, he’s getting them laughing.
I have a completely different energy than him. So when I first went up, it felt like: He’s the headliner. He’s very kindly calling me the headliner but he’s the headliner. It’s a very weird thing to have the leader of the free world and the coolest guy in the room do a solid 25 minutes of pure laughs and then touch us all at the end with his comments and then to say: Now we need a comedian. You don’t! So I was thinking, like, well there’s no need for me. But I’m here and I’ve got good jokes, so let’s go.
And then, it was really fun when I found that gavel. It was just a gavel behind the podium and I found it and started playing with it and I was just having a lot of fun.
You didn’t know that was going to be there?
I didn’t know it was going to be there. No. I got it from behind the podium. Some joke did really well. I think it was the nut allergy joke. And I looked down and there was that gavel. It was a lot of laughs so I was just waiting and I picked up the gavel and started hitting it and it was — fun. So it went by quickly, which is always a good sign.
How much time did you spend working on the speech? Can you even quantify that?
A lot of time. For every joke I did, there were probably 60 jokes that were written, thought about and then thrown away. I mean, we spent a long time on it because I did this in ‘95 and I knew what the room was and I knew that you need to warm them up and you need to get them into your rhythm and I wanted to do a variety. You’ve got to touch on a lot, quickly. You want it to be edgy. You want some of the oohs because you actually, you want some of it to be biting, but you also want to pull back and just have the big laughs. So to get that mix, we were working solidly for a long time. And we were rearranging things, up until today.
The jokes that you ended up taking out: Can you use them in any way later?
Nope. Because they’re so specific to this event.
[At this point, Joanna Coles, editor of Cosmo, and Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones cut in to tell Conan how good his speech was. “Thank you,” he replied, then gestured to me. “Tell this woman that.” Then Matthew Perry slid by and patted Conan’s shoulder: “Very funny, very funny,” he said. “You were great. Awesome.” Then several members of the cast of House of Cards offered their well wishes, completing the compliment hat trick, at which point the interview resumed.]
Will you read the reviews of your speech, or will you just avoid them?
There’s so many. No, I don’t read reviews, I always get the gist of it from people. The biggest reaction I get, the best, is from that room. Like, who was there and how did [those] people feel about it. That was overwhelmingly positive, so I’m very happy with that. You know — it’s a big country. There will always be, “Oh, he said this. What did he mean? What did he mean by that?” Whatever. You can’t — I wasn’t there to please everybody. I was there to do what I had to do and I was happy with how it went.
Next time, can you bring Triumph to walk around the dinner?
No one’s going to let me do that.