“Some guests get on the phone with the bookers and they’re like, ‘Oh, I like to wing it.’ ‘Well, I heard you recently bought a cow.’ ‘No, I didn’t.’ ‘What do you like to do for fun?’ ‘I like shopping. Listen, I gotta get out of the car now.’ Then you have Schwarzenegger calling four times in the three weeks before he comes on—‘Do you have more stuff for me? Did you punch it up?’ ” O’Brien carries the show, and he knows it. “We’ll have someone who is famously not a great guest on, and in the morning my doorman will be like, ‘Oh, wasn’t so-and-so funny?’ ” says O’Brien. “I’ll be like, ‘I did that. That was me!’ ”
Backstage at Late Night: Rob Schneider’s telling a lesser-known but older comedian, “It’s all about being yourself—keep going with that”; slender and stylish Kate Hudson’s striding down the hall with her posse of blonde fixer-uppers. Paul Rudd is on, and O’Brien replaces a clip from The 40-Year-Old Virgin with one of a space alien falling off a cliff from the McDonald’s-sponsored movie Mac and Me. The publicist wails, “The studio is going to kill me!” Another night, members of Eva Longoria’s entourage, all in spangled attire and carrying tiny purses, titter in the greenroom. “Oh, Eva looks so beautiful,” they say. “Her makeup looks so good.” The show was supposed to send over a manicurist to Longoria’s place earlier in the day, but the woman never showed up. “Well, if they need to use her hands, they’ll use a hand model,” jokes an O’Brien producer.
The women look at each other, unsmiling.
We have all gone years without a decent sitcom, and you can’t really call the Law & Order franchise a great network drama—so would anyone really miss it if the late-night shill show disappeared into thin air? Is there something deep-seated in the American consciousness that makes us want to see stupid pet tricks and cozy conversation between host and starlet as we drift off to sleep, snug as bugs?
O’Brien is in the odd position of knowing that what he is inheriting is no longer as valuable as it once was but wanting it anyway. “There are no gatekeepers to comedy anymore,” says O’Brien, who hasn’t performed stand-up since college and rarely visits comedy clubs (the idea of hosting a stand-up show, he says, makes him want to “put a gun to my ear”). “There used to be a castle with one entry to the moat, and Johnny had the key to the drawbridge. Now they’ve taken down all the walls to the castle and people are milling in and out. These days, there are 40 ‘best new comedians’ coming out next year. I saw some comedian billed as ‘he’s so edgy he makes Chris Rock look like Bill Cosby.’ What? That’s slamming two great comedians for no reason. I think of it as, you have lots of instruments playing, and we’ve got a little triangle going ding-ding-ding! If we do it for a long time, people will eventually hear it.” He grimaces. “If it’s worth hearing.”
Stop the madness, Conan. I cannot bear to hear any more self-deprecation. Finally, it’s phony. And if I find it irritating, won’t much of America?
“Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart got in trouble recently when he said he would kill any gay man who looked at him romantically. In response, a spokesperson for gay men said, ‘Hey, we’re gay. We’re not blind.’ ”
Well, he’s working on it. “It sounds pretentious, but I do think of this as a body of work, and the next couple of years are really important, not the time to start dogging it, you know what I mean? After the announcement was made, I thought, There are only a finite number of these Late Night With Conan O’Briens left, and I want them to be good—there are people who might be checking me out now who weren’t checking me out before. I don’t want them tuning in and going,‘Well, what was all the fuss about?’ ”
Conan will inherit the crown—he’s the Prince Charles of late night. The geeks will inherit the Earth. And he’ll have no more excuses about being on too late—thank God.
Jeff Ross, O’Brien’s calm and debonair executive producer, also has a button he can push to make the door slam automatically, but today the door is open. He’s in there watching golf on the big-screen TV, a grid of index cards of the guests the other late-night shows have booked for the week pinned to a wall (The Daily Show is noticeably absent—“below the radar” is the way Ross puts it). He talks about what makes a good guest spot, and renovations on his house in Southampton, and in the most casual way whether O’Brien would be happy at another network or doing a different kind of show, what could be gained by leaving NBC and what could be lost—the most important job in comedy.