“Sir, I am a complete unknown,” Conan O’Brien once told a reporter in 1993 who referred to him as a “relative unknown.”
In the midst of the late night wars of the early 1990s, all the attention was on Jay Leno, David Letterman, and the retiring of Johnny Carson after a legendary 29 year tenure. After Jay Leno became host of The Tonight Show in May of 1992, there was an awkward period where David Letterman had to wait to leave for CBS until his contract was up in the middle of the following year. Once that contract was up, the question then became “Who will replace David Letterman?”
NBC was scrambling at the time of a 1993 press conference. They had no leads on who the replacement would be, as their top contender Dana Carvey had turned the gig down, not wanting to be the one to replace Letterman. So they enlisted Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels to executive produce the Late Night franchise and pick the next host. And he chose a 30 year-old comedy writer who wrote for SNL and The Simpsons with almost no on-camera experience named Conan O’Brien.
The “Cinderella story” and rise of Conan O’Brien is nothing short of legendary, and remains so to this day. O’Brien was far from the obvious choice, given his limited background in traditional performing. But the spark Michaels had seen stemmed from O’Brien’s reputation of being the funniest guy in the writers room. Whenever something needed to be acted out, O’Brien was quick to jump to his feet and put all his life into it, despite it being a performance that would never leave that room. He was, in a sense, a natural performer waiting for the rest of the world to take notice.
So when it came time to do Late Night, O’Brien assembled a killer writing staff to help define the show’s humor. Writers on the earliest incarnation of the show include head writer Robert Smigel, Louis C.K., Dino Stamatopoulos, Bob Odenkirk, Marsh McCall, Michael Gordon (who went onto later play The Masturbating Bear), David Reynolds, Chuck Sklar, Tom Agna, and an a writer plucked from Chicago named Andy Richter, who O’Brien clicked with so well he chose to be his on-air sidekick. The goal was to go in the complete opposite direction of what Letterman had done. While Letterman’s tone was more ironic and detached, O’Brien’s show would be pure silliness, with O’Brien acting as the straight man to all the chaos going on around him.
Fresh out the gate, O’Brien took the pressure head on by opening the first episode with a piece that found him walking down the street to a cheerful bevy of “You better be as good as Letterman!” The piece ended in O’Brien starting to put a noose around his neck before a stage manager tells him it’s time to go on. Anyone who had any question of whether or not O’Brien was in on how ridiculous and insane it was to have a complete unknown take over for David Letterman had their answer. He was fully aware of it, and took it in his usual optimism mixed with self deprecation.
Reviews were unkind out the gate. Tom Shales, writer for the Washington Post, famously wrote a review once so scathing that O’Brien physically crawled under his desk to hide upon reading it. The network, similarly, had limited faith in the show. They questioned everything from the quality of the comedy to what then-President of NBC called the sidekick that looks like a fat dildo.” They went from an already crazy 13 week renewal system at one point to an unheard of week-by-week renewal.
But then, the craziest thing happened: A little over a year into his run, NBC started to take notice that Conan was gaining an audience. Once O’Brien figured out the ins and outs of hosting a late night show with his particular style of unabashed silliness with a smidge of intellectualism hidden within, things really took off. O’Brien had become hot with the college aged kids and young comedy fans in their early 20s. It was the kind of show that the younger generation could connect to, given O’Brien’s youthfulness and overall charm and likability. It felt like he was one of them who just so happened to have been handed a TV studio and cameras and the chance to do whatever he wanted. The fact that the network wasn’t really paying attention only further worked out in his favor. The show was suddenly deemed a hit by the network and critics, and even Tom Shales went on the record to say how wrong he had been and praised O’Brien.
After 16 years of killing it on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, he left the show and New York for Los Angeles to host The Tonight Show. Things, as you may recall, didn’t quite go as planned. Instead of retiring, Jay Leno went to prime time after he handed the show off and once again acted as O’Brien’s lead in. When that show failed, the network proposed moving Leno back to The Tonight Show’s 11:35 time slot and O’Brien to 12:05. O’Brien wasn’t having it, and after 7 months as host of The Tonight Show, left and went on over to TBS.
The public support that O’Brien received as a result is nothing short of remarkable. There were rallies all over the country, Facebook groups showing their result that gained millions of followers, and even a 32 city tour that O’Brien went on that sold out within minutes. He went from being a late night talk show host to what Richter once described as a “folk hero.” It was the 1990’s late night wars all over again, and while Leno did go back and host The Tonight Show for a few more years, there was an over abundance of love and support on Conan’s side.
In November of 2010, O’Brien started his TBS show. What became really appealing to O’Brien is, by being on basic cable, he had all the more freedom to do whatever he wanted. Starting in 2015, he started the next phase of redefining what he does by being the first late night host to go to Cuba since Jack Paar in the 1950s. The show was a success and a game changer of sorts for O’Brien, and similar remote shows took place in Armenia, Berlin, Haiti, Japan, South Korea, Ghana, Italy, and more. When he made the decision in 2019 to go from an hour long talk show to a half hour, he also debuted a new podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend. While the new time limit didn’t really seem to go over well, there was a fresh and unique energy to his new podcast, that has also been praised by critics and fans alike.
And that brings us to now. After 28 years, Conan O’Brien is stepping down as a nightly talk show host. He isn’t leaving television. He’s going over to HBO Max rather, to host a weekly variety show. But one thing that remains for certain is that O’Brien will be missed in the late night arena by many, as his presence has been the last relic to a bygone era of late night. While the current landscape has become increasingly political, O’Brien never lost the spirit and silliness that made us all fans of his in the first place. And in recent years, he has voiced that late night as we presently know it won’t be around forever. That is further echoed by more and more clips from the shows being viewed the next day. Oftentimes, the views surpass how many people were watching initially. So with O’Brien hanging up the hat, it is certainly the end of an era that finds Jimmy Kimmel now as the elder statesman.
O’Brien’s stamp however, won’t be forgotten. The sheer fact that he went from obscurity to replacing David Letterman to week-by-week renewals to a 28 year ride as a talk show host is not only remarkable, it defies nearly all possibility. But that just goes to show how good O’Brien has always been. Behind only David Letterman and Johnny Carson, he is the third longest running late night host of all time. That’s pretty great company to be in. And most importantly, it’s well deserved.
Maybe now we’ll finally figure out what exactly Jordan Schlansky did as an associate producer…
Conan always seemed to go for the funny, no matter where it took him – a silly character, goofy bit, recurring thing that only made him giggle. Norm MacDonald and Bill Burr provided many many, classic panel segments on his show. Conan considered himself a comic above all and its evident his love for stand-up when he released a recent “best of guest” clip that is largely dominated by comedians.
Conan was the one that picked up the mantle for comics when Johnny Carson retired, championing great stand-ups on his show including those that didn’t have a “TV set”. Whether that be Tig Notaro simply push a stool across the set, letting Jon Dore and Rory Scovel do a “double booked” segment, allowing Jay Larson to just tell a great story about a wrong phone call, or have Gary Gulman just go wild with state abbreviations for 5 minutes. Conan and his team really championed stand-ups. So much in fact that this entire week has been full of many comics talking about their time on the show and offering congrats.
Here are just a few…
Dive into our archives to watch the many, many comic stand-up sets that have happened over the years.