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.)
With each new installment of From the Archives I get to enjoy the searching and researching and recapping that goes into each new find at the Paley Center. As a comedy writer myself, it’s very inspiring and educational to watch a lot of this material as a means of learning what came before and what repeats. With that in mind, every few months or so I like to look at the early days of one of my biggest personal comic heroes, Conan O’Brien. By seeing what was working for him and what traits he still has almost 20 years later is an excellent lesson in knowing one’s comedic voice and writing to it. More importantly, Conan is funny.
So far we’ve looked at Letterman’s first appearance on Conan’s show, as well as the premiere of Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Today we look an episode just three months after that first episode, all the way to December 24, 1993.
As with many of the episodes of Late Night in the early days, the episode begins with a cold open. This particular cold open was a recurring segment on Late Night in which fake scenes from the previous episodes of the program are shown as if it were a steamy drama. In it, a smug, smartly dressed Conan introduces his “wife” to his mistress, a car bursts into flames as it drives down the street, Conan’s “wife” shoots him in the chest, and Conan thrusts Andy’s head into a pool. The final clip features Conan and a handsome stranger sitting in a room. Conan defiantly taunts, “You’ve got nothing on me, Draxler,” to which the man gestures to the door behinds him and in storms a group of recurring characters, a bunch of meathead men who make fun of Conan, asking him where his sword is, and calling him “Co-nan.” (Sharp-eyed viewers will notice then-staff writers Louis CK and Robert Smigel in the group.)
The opening theme is played by (a particularly shaggy looking) Max Weinberg 7, and from the curtain emerges Conan O’Brien dressed in a Santa suit. It’s hard to say if it’s from being dressed in a costume or just Conan’s inexperience, but he seems very self-conscious during this monologue, which is replete with the nervous giggles, and the same awkward open-palm slaps against his thighs we saw in his premiere episode.
His first joke is pretty awful as he asks the crowd to “Be honest. Does this suit make me look fat?” although it becomes clear that the joke is meant to be bad. His second one, “I’m not going to leave all my shopping for the last minute. Although last year my family really did enjoy the beef jerky,” is equally terrible and receives some scattered laughter, but there is one shrill-voice of laughter that continues long past the others and then shouts, “Yeah! Conan! The world is your patsy!” In his next joke, Conan doesn’t even get through the setup when this audience member interrupts again, “Wow! Boom! Conan! Hit me with it! What madness are you sending my way?!” The camera cuts to the overzealous fan to reveal a super-realistic turkey puppet sitting in the crowd (voiced and operated by future Mr. Show and Community writer, Dino Stamatopoulos, off-camera.) The turkey continues to suck up to Conan even after the host recognizes him as the turkey he is planning on cooking and eating on Christmas. He tells the turkey to stop kissing his ass because it’s useless; he’s going to be eaten and he’s as good as dead. Accepting his fate, the turkey decides to read his will. “I, the Kiss Ass Turkey… do leave Conan O’Brien, aka the King of the Yuk-Yuks, all my meager possessions, they being three kernels of corn, a few pieces of straw, some dried crap, and my stereo. Take it! Take it all!” Conan is touched by the gesture and decides to let the turkey live, who promptly calls Conan a sucker and announces he’s taking the two attractive ladies sitting on either side of him to Acapulco.
Next, Conan decides to put his Santa suit to use. The curtains open to reveal a Christmas scene, a giant chair, a line of children, and Andy Richter dressed as an elf. Each of the children takes their turn climbing up on Santa Conan’s lap and telling them what they want from Santa. For Christmas, little Lindsey would like Conan to treat his guests with more respect and to stop fidgeting so much, which Conan points out, is the same thing the network wants too. Lisa wants Conan to stop wearing a tie and for him to punch an old man in the stomach, which he does. Mark wants Conan to bring his daddy back. To do so, Conan looks over at Max and we see that instead of a stool, Max is sitting on top of a man, crouched on all fours, that he reluctantly lets go. Finally little Ashley wants to see former NYC mayor Ed Koch tickle himself. Conan is all too happy to oblige, and as Ed steps out on the stage and does exactly that, we go to commercial.
Both of Conan’s guests that evening, stand-up legend Robert Klein and actress Mary Beth Hurt do their best, but for whatever reason, I just wasn’t engaged. Conan’s interview style with both of them was interesting. He didn’t interject with jokes and asides very much, as he does today on his TBS show, but the conversation seems much more free flowing than it does now. The questions he asks his guests don’t feel pre-scripted or as if they’re just being read off of blue cards. Conan is very much in the moment, reacting to the guests’ statements and moving the conversation forward naturally. However, almost paradoxically, Conan seems disinterested in the guests, at times even bored. It’s possible that this was just an off night, or that he’s so focused on looking natural for the interview, this being something very new for him, that he’s unable to actually relax. However, at one point during Mary Beth Hurt’s segment, Conan asks her to set up a clip from the movie she’s performing and she starts to, but once she’s distracted by something Robert Klein says on the couch next to her, Conan shouts “THE CLIP!” and bangs a pencil against the desk. When she finally does set it up, he announces, “roll the clip!” and makes the most exaggeratedly excited face possible.
Between the interview segments we get two other short comedy pieces. The first is short: coming back from commercial, Conan says, “we’ll be right back after this guy smoking a cigarette real fast.” Cut to Dino Stamotopoulis, on camera now, for the next thirty seconds, smoking an entire cigarette really fast. He works very hard, taking deep, quick breaths, and whether it’s from the stress or all the smoke, he actually ends up shedding a tear in the last few seconds. It’s all very impressive/sickening.
The other piece features a long, heartfelt introduction from Conan. “Ever since I was a child, the music of the holiday season has sent a warm, glowing feeling through my whole being. Whether listening to neighborhood carolers, street corner musicians, or choral groups, like the Vienna Boys and Mormon Tabernacle Choirs, the spirit of the season would always burn deep within my soul. So, with that same spirit in mind, singing an excerpt from the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah: The Ventriloquist Dummy Choir.” On stage we see twelve actual ventriloquists with their twelve dummies, all of them wearing choir robes, singing the Hallelujah Chorus in their goofy, nasally puppet voices. They sing two verses and immediately upon finishing, the dummies and the ventriloquists begin arguing with one another. Conan wipes a tear from his eye and the bit ends.
The final guest is another older stand-up by the name of Eddie Lawrence, who in 1956 cracked the Billboard Top 40 with a routine that he does a variation of called “The Old Philosopher.” The basic shtick of this bit, which he does a Christmas version of in this episode, is he lists a number of problems the person he’s speaking to is having, such as “Your mischievous cousin gave you a moose head with the moose still in it,” or “your Yorkie swallowed some of those jingle bells and is driving everyone crazy throughout the house.” Then, he jumps up from his chair, and the backing music swells as he tells the person to “Lift your head up high!” and to “Never give up!” Being unfamiliar with the original, I found this bit rather confusing, although the audience there seemed to enjoy it significantly more than I did.
Back from commercial, everyone involved with the show that night, puppets, children and actors are all crowded around Conan. As Dino smokes another cigarette and holds the turkey puppet, Conan wishes everyone a merry Christmas and goodnight.