The Original Writers of Conan’s ‘Late Night’ on Writing

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 150,000 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.)

This week on Conan, O’Brien has been celebrating his 20th year on the air. Previously on From the Archives we’ve looked at his very first episode, and a selection of other early examples of what Late Night looked like in 1993. Today we take a trip through the Paley Center articles for a rare opportunity to hear from several of the original writers of Late Night, who are now among comedy’s heaviest of hitters, to hear what it was like to write for the show, and just what it was they were trying to do to set it apart from other programs, back when they were actually doing it. On January 13, 1994, not even a year into the program’s life, the Paley Center invited then-head writer Robert Smigel, Andy Richter, Louis CK, and Dino Stamatopoulos to come and talk about what it’s like writing for what could only be described in 1994 as the newest late night program of them all.

Because the show was so new at this point, and everyone was still enamored with the idea of Conan the newcomer, a lot of time in the panel discussion is spent on the overall thesis of the show. Examining what makes it different from all of the other shows. At its core, there is an emphasis on the fact that Conan is a writer first, and didn’t start out as a standup. As a result the show was designed to lean a lot heavier on performing, rather than hard “joke jokes.” Conan’s Late Night would be less of the host holding up a card at the desk and making fun of headlines. (One long-time recurring bit on the show, “Actual Items,” directly lampooned this idea, with Conan and Andy constantly repeating, “you just can’t make this stuff up” about strange headlines that they definitely did make up.) Smigel sites such influences as Steve Allen, despite the fact that he never really saw the show, but his perceived idea of what The Steve Allen Show looked like, and Uncle Floyd, who was a children’s show host (or perhaps he was a parody of a children’s show host) on the East coast in the 1970s, known for his twisted humor and on-camera interaction with off-camera staff.

One hurdle in creating a late night show with a non-standup host is the problem of the monologue. You seemingly have to have one, but what do you do with a guy like Conan? Today O’Brien is perfectly at ease telling classic-style monologue jokes. He’s found his own style of delivery with frequent act-outs and dances and interjections from co-host Richter. In 1994, though, they still hadn’t quite nailed it down. Smigel talks about doing some more conceptual bits during the monologue, such as Stamatopolous’ turkey puppet who would appear during the audience around Thanksgiving and laugh uproariously at Conan’s jokes to suck up and avoid being eaten. Louis states that the purpose of the monologue is to force the host to be “naked and let him speak.” One method that they attempted with Conan is similar to what Craig Ferguson does on his show now, which is to have one theme or subject that evolves into a story or a recollection from Conan. Louis describes this as having “Conan make an appeal that he’s speaking more personally. You can’t do that night to night.” Smigel compares this approach to Jack Parr or Regis Philbin. “He goes to parties and he’s not happy with his seat.” The implication here being that Conan was far too busy with the show to go out to parties.

Andy Richter, who initially started as a writer on the show, but was bumped up to sidekick after he and Conan found they had a great rapport, thought of himself as “an extension of trying to get away from someone holding up cards. It adds more to the material when you have somebody else there. Even with Letterman and Paul, there’s a distance between them and Paul has to play music. If they want to send me out to the lighting of the Christmas tree, they can do that.” Smigel adds that Andy’s acting ability was a major sell for him to step up to the plate as sidekick as well. They felt that there would be a lot of value in having somebody who could sit there and do sketches with Conan, rather than just sit and laugh at jokes.

One aspect of the show that all of the writers are very excited and proud of in this seminar is the concept of the fake guest. These characters would appear frequently in the early days of Conan’s Late Night and seem like real guests with a strange book, or weird quirk to interrupt the actual guest before devolving into silliness. However, just a few months in there are hints that the luster is coming off of this idea as Robert states that “Sometimes it works and sometimes it angers people,” and Andy interjects, “But at all times it shows our disrespect for the guests.” These include pieces in which Conan introduces his new character “the laughing genie.” This character is just a video of Conan dressed as a genie, arms akimbo, laughing. Throughout the evening they would cut to this clip for seemingly no reason. Then there’s Dizz, a man who enters and just runs around in circles for a while until he’s very dizzy. The actual guests, a sumo wrestler and his trainer, can be seen looking on with matching furrowed brows.

Having watched a number of Paley Center seminars at this point, one thing that struck me with this one was how quiet the audience is throughout. Maybe it’s just the fact that the show is so young and they’re looking for these writers to “prove it” to them. Maybe the Late Night writers’ senses of humor were just too inside and their writers’ room bits didn’t play well in a large room. Or maybe they just weren’t miced properly. Whatever the reason, at a certain point it becomes clear that these guys decide to just mess with the audience. For example, when the moderator begins to ask about longer comedy pieces, Dino cuts him off and assumes a very pompous character, saying: “Yes, thank you for that segue. The fourth act is what we in the writers’ room refer to as ‘the main course.’ Robert will say ‘we need a plate of yuk-yuks with maybe a thin slice of chuckles’ and then we’ll go and cook ‘em up.”

Among these insights into the writing process, it’s also really fun to see the early clips from the first few months worth of shows. Many of these are classics that if you’ve ever seen a Late Night anniversary special, you’ve seen them before, though there are a few gems that have slipped through the cracks over the years. One recurring bit that was done on the show early on were the Year Round Carolers in which a children’s choir would sing carols for smaller holidays, such as this one for Columbus Day: “I dream of old fashioned Columbus days / And Columbus Day shoes of yarn and cork. / And children always sleep ‘til way past noon, / Then indulge in the cheese filled Columbus Day pork.” Many of your favorite recurring bits began right out of the gate like “Actual Items” and “In the Year 2000.” I’m going to share one joke from the very first “In the Year 2000” that made me laugh and probably won’t live up to the introduction I’m giving it now. “In the year 2000, the term “That’s really wicker” will become a popular street term, detonating the authenticity of wicker.”

There probably won’t ever be another show like Late Night with Conan O’Brien in which a very funny man was selected from obscurity and given the keys to a comedy franchise and was given the ability to be as dumb and silly as he wanted to on national television. The original staff of the show has gone on to become enormously successful in their own ways and have influenced many people with their unique innovations in comedy and their ability to craft a perfectly dumb joke that’s just dumb enough but not too stupid. The modern comedy world owes these four guys and this show an enormous debt.

And that’s really wicker.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

The Original Writers of Conan’s ‘Late Night’ on Writing