The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
The last time we looked at an episode of Conan’s Late Night here at “From the Archives,” we watched his very first episode as a talk show host and attempted to dissect his evolution. Today we are going to check in with Conan on an episode that aired on March 1st, 1994, six months after Late Night with Conan O’Brien’s premiere. This episode was an important milestone for O’Brien because there was only one guest that evening: the former occupant of Studio 6A and the first host of Late Night, David Letterman.
Much like the first episode of Conan’s talk show, this episode begins with a cold open. A grizzle-voiced announcer begins “Last night on Conan O’Brien…” and we see a wealthy older blonde woman exclaim, “You’re a bastard!” Conan, in an ascot, holding a glass of red wine raises an eyebrow and drily replies, “Yes, I know!” Cut to a flaming car rolling down a hill. Cut to Conan holding a man’s head in a pool shouting, “I want my money!” He lets the man up for air, revealing its sidekick Andy Richter. “I spent it! I spent it all!” And soap opera cliché after cliché as Conan drugs Max’s tea and Conan opens fire on a group of toughs in a deserted warehouse. It’s a fun sketch that clearly required a lot of work but sets a tone for the evening immediately. This idea is somewhat echoed in the fake episode names of Conan’s TBS show.
Conan’s monologue is packed to the gills with Olympics references. The 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer had their closing ceremonies the previous night, and in case you’ve forgotten, this was the Olympics with all of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan drama, so there are jokes about crowbars, issues with laces and how no matter what country you’re from, an ugly parka is an ugly parka. Conan still seems nervous giving his monologue, and is a far cry from his later days of dancing and acting as characters to punctuate jokes, but no longer giggles nervously after each joke.
Back at the desk, Conan and Andy do their recurring bit, “If They Mated,” which stayed with the 12:30 show. In it, they look at images of celebrity pairings and then, using “advanced computer technology” show what their offspring would look like. This is a segment that really doesn’t translate too well to text, but we get to see the strange looking children of Johnny Depp/Kate Moss, Elizabeth Taylor/Larry Fortensky, Regis/Kathie Lee and Tonya Harding and then-husband Jeff Gillooly (their offspring turns out to be the Menendez Brothers which makes this the hat-trick of early-90s references).
Then Conan throws to commercial, (Side note: this recording at the Paley Center had the original commercials intact, and I think every single ad break had one from The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Apparently Late Night with Conan O’Brien viewers were the key demographic of parents who needed to talk to their kids about drugs.) but first we are treated to another sketch entitled “Late Night Presents You Be the Host” in which we are given three options that Conan could take as actor/director Ben Stiller tells Conan a really boring story. When the show returns we learn that the correct choice was to “start a fire at your desk,” which Conan demonstrates with lighter fluid and a match.
Back in the show, Conan is about to introduce Letterman when a “streaker” in the middle of the audience, who is actually just a guy in a weird fat, naked suit, interrupts him. The moment is a little less funny than uncomfortable, but it’s quick and before you know it, to the sounds of the Max Weinberg 7 playing his old NBC theme song, David Letterman comes out as the audience gives him a huge standing ovation.
Dave seems right at home and slips into his old routines as Letterman tells Conan that he was really excited and looking forward to the occasion of his return to 30 Rock until “I was looking at a guy pretending to be fat and naked. The executive talent at GE hasn’t changed at all.” Conan seems a little uncomfortable with the NBC bashing, perhaps because he doesn’t feel as though he is on the best ground with the network at that time. Later in the interview Conan asks if Dave had any idea when he started how important the Late Night show would become, Dave says he had no idea, and clearly NBC didn’t either. But in spite of his famously prickly attitude, Dave gives Conan a lot of positive reinforcement. He tells Conan that he and his staff have done a wonderful job of carving out a new identity for themselves and that they do a high level of “produced comedy” and that “there’s nothing like this show anywhere on television.” He tells Conan about how uncomfortable it was to watch the new show initially. He would see the words Late Night and think “Oh, keen! I’ll be on! And then it would be ‘Conan O’Brien’ and I’d say to myself, ‘oh, jeez. I wish I had a show.’ It was very odd. I know that’s pathetic, but that’s my life.”
And then, of course, there’s this classic exchange.
Conan: When I first got this job, I came here to 30 Rock…
Dave: How did you get this job? Was it a theme-writing contest?
Conan: Yeah. It was “what would I do with a talk show…” And I was fourth.
Conan starts to launch into a bit where he says that one of the drawbacks of inheriting Dave’s show is that he had a very funny window, but Conan’s window isn’t very funny. O’Brien then picks up a pencil and then, mimicking one of Dave’s signature moves, throws it through the window, and we hear crickets. Conan begins to give Dave a pencil, but Dave plows forward telling a story about taping his show earlier in the night and calling someone the wrong name for a full five minutes. Once his story is done, finally he indulges Conan and throws the pencil, and the trademark window crash sound effect is heard.
During the 1994 Olympics, which were broadcast on CBS that year, Dave sent his mom to cover them, but Dave discusses the concern that she’d be taken out by an errant bobsled. However, she doesn’t really have the bug to do much more, Dave says, and won’t be running off to Bosnia to cover that. Conan asks if other networks are vying to give her a 12:30 show, Dave pounces: “Well, I guess anyone can get a 12:30 show, Conan.” But Conan is ready with the rejoinder: “My only regret is that you didn’t use her on the old show, because now she’d be the intellectual property of NBC.”
Dave’s segment ends with a story about his old pickup truck, a ‘73 Chevy that was rusty, dented and a possession that Dave was proud of. During one appearance on Johnny’s Tonight Show, Carson asks Dave, “Why don’t you tell me about that piece of junk parked in front of your house?” at which point he reveals that the Tonight Show had stolen Dave’s car, and brought it into the studio. Later, Dave realized that the left front headlight had been busted out, so six weeks later, Carson and Letterman settled the dispute with the aid of People’s Court host Judge Wapner. “I won a thirty dollar settlement. I felt like one of his ex-wives! Gettin’ on that gravy train!”
At the end of the show, in a sweet moment, Conan and Dave get sincere as Conan thanks Letterman for appearing, telling him that it meant a lot to him, and Dave told Conan that he felt that he’s doing a terrific job.
Then Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa’s band Z did a song or something.
The most interesting thing about the episode is seeing the differences between these two hosts as they sit right next to one another. Dave takes control of the show, and makes it his own. As he tells a story, he uses his trick of punctuating certain moments by looking directly at the camera. He mugs. He repeats punchlines of earlier jokes later in his interview. Dave breezes past Conan’s segues to tell the stories he wants to tell, and then when he’s done he might indulge the thing Conan was originally getting at. It’s clear as one compares this episode to his first, that Conan is growing as a host, but still has a long way to go. He’s still nervous and learning how to transition, but I think in some ways that maybe it was everybody else who wasn’t ready for Conan.
For example, before they do “If They Mated,” Conan and Andy banter a little bit about the Olympics and it becomes clear quickly that this section is unscripted. It’s not that they aren’t being funny, but Conan doesn’t yet have the chops to transition this conversation into the next bit, so there is a moment of silence as Conan takes a sip from his mug then, recognizing the silence, Conan says, “Sweet, sweet water. It refreshes me,” which is met with a few confused chuckles. However, the audience is wrong because that is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on this show. Sure Conan had to get a little more comfortable early on, but how much gold was there that the audience (and critics) just didn’t see?
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.