“What if Conan gets a call from his conscience?”
“That’s great,” says Sweeney. “Let’s not do it.”
They muse and brood.
“You know, there’s an inverse proportion to how much studios spend on the opening weekend and how good the movie is,” drones basso-voiced writer Brian McCann, munching a handful of pistachios.
“McCann’s new character is a guy who knows a ton about the industry and loves pistachios,” says O’Brien.
“When me nuts go away, so does me knowledge,” says McCann.
Look at these guys (and they are guys; there’s not one woman out of ten sketch and four monologue writers): Sweeney is massaging a bowling ball, another is twisting a piece of bent metal, the one after tearing apart a Styrofoam bowl, the next playing with the ribs of a broken skeleton. A half-size Chris Farley recently hired from The Onion is shaking his knees like it’s below-freezing while listening to his iPod. I guess he’s paying attention—he was the big winner at a meeting yesterday: For a skit about minor-league-baseball mascots, he came up with the character of Mayor McCheese with Tourette’s syndrome. Are these O’Brien’s peers, even if they are unable to banter onscreen with Rachel McAdams or cut a figure at cocktail parties with Jeff Zucker?
O’Brien talks about how much he’s always wanted to do a bit on the contractor for Hitler’s bunker—“Everyone’s coming into Berlin, and he’s saying, ‘You really don’t want to rush this kind of work, you want to do it once and be glad you have it.’ ” McCann talks about a new waterfall discovered by a 93-year-old in California. O’Brien talks about an Irish guy who discovered a beautiful cave but kept it a secret, and relates that to the great resentment of the Irish people (“I discovered a natural wonder! Shh—that’s nobody’s business! Get inside and resent it! Resent what? Just resent it!”). There is for some reason a gigantic amount of giggling over the idea of Sean Connery Air—no food, no blankets, and you’ll like it that way.
“According to the latest polls, President Bush’s approval ratings are at an all-time low. In response, President Bush said, ‘Yeah, but my disapproval ratings are at an all-time high.’ ”
“What have we accomplished here?” muses Sweeney. “Absolutely nothing.”
O’Brien wishes he could hang out with the other late-night hosts, but no one makes an effort. He’s had a few conversations with Letterman, and has visited Leno a couple of times. (“He picked me up from the Beverly Hills Hotel in a car from 1918 that had gas lanterns and looked like it ran on peat moss,” says O’Brien. “Yah, Conan’s not a car guy,” says Leno. “I think he was confused and frightened by the whole experience.”) There was a phone call between Carson and O’Brien after his appointment was announced. “It wasn’t a long conversation, but he kidded me: ‘It sure is a long engagement before the wedding,’ he said. The tone was that I was getting an old Packard,” says O’Brien, “and he was the original owner telling me, ‘Isn’t it a great ride, that car? Doesn’t it have a smooth shift between third and fourth?’ I told him I’d try not to screw up the franchise. ‘Ooh, that is some franchise anyway,’ he said.” Says Bill Zehme, author of the upcoming biography Carson the Magnificent, “Johnny lost pride of ownership when he left Burbank. In later years, he watched reality shows and loved to mock bad television—that was much more his interest than tuning into the late-night boys.”
A few months before Carson died last January, a TV program asked him what he would be doing the day O’Brien took over: He said he thought he had a colonoscopy scheduled for that day.
O’Brien describes his initial vision for Late Night as a mix of Carson’s classic sixties charm—sidekick, orchestra and bandleader, suits and ties—and Letterman’s smirking send-up of the talk-show form. It didn’t work so well at the beginning: His first year ended with NBC’s offering him a thirteen-week contract, with interns filling empty seats in the audience, and with his being instructed by the Washington Post’s Tom Shales to “return to Conan O’Blivion whence he came,” all the while weathering the encroaching threat of Greg Kinnear at 1:30 a.m. and executives calling for sidekick Andy Richter’s head (one exec told O’Brien to “get rid of that big fat dildo”). “Most people find their voice when they’re trying to be somebody else—musicians start out idolizing another musician, and it’s their failure to be that person that makes them worth listening to,” says O’Brien. “Over time, who I was came out. I’m from a large Irish-Catholic family, I have my own particularities, I’m screwed up in my own way, so naturally it’s going to be different.”
The problem is that even though he is able to preserve a modicum of cool in person, there is nothing about O’Brien onscreen that is suave. Nor is there that hostility under the surface that used to make Letterman so exciting. O’Brien is first a wonk and second a goofball—a smart guy who watched too much TV as a kid and takes an almost academic interest in turning the television-comedy paradigms on their head. “Don’t get me wrong, a really good joke is great—it’s a nugget, an element in nature, it shows up on an electron microscope,” says O’Brien. “I love it when I have good jokes. But what I really love to do is play with them.”