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.)
It’s been almost two years since we’ve had an installment of From the Archives’ unofficial recurring segment: Looking Back at Conan’s Early Years. Let’s fix that. The previous episodes (1, 2, 3) we’ve looked at have all taken place during O’Brien’s first year as a talk show host, which most, including the man himself, would tell you were rocky. He was trying to find his footing as an interviewer, become comfortable in front of the camera, all while trying to deliver his vision of a talk show that is something he would find funny and will also (hopefully) live up to the lofty legacy that his predecessor David Letterman left behind. Today we jump ahead to an episode from December 30, 1994, just a few months after his first year ended.
By this point, things seem to be going a lot smoother for Conan. No doubt, making that year notch in his belt has bolstered his confidence somewhat, but he’s also making strides. His monologues are much more comfortable. He’s still not the string-dancing, jumping at the camera host we know today, but that evolution is still several years away. His rapport with Andy is easier, and their banter much more natural. And while it’s not 100% comfortable, he does seem better with the guests and segues more nimbly from blue card question to question.
Conan’s monologue on this night is a relatively standard crop of jokes, much shorter than any of the modern late night hosts’ monologues. It is also markedly more adolescent than O’Brien’s jokes seem to be in recent years. That’s not to say that the jokes on Conan aren’t silly or immature, because they often are, however, this batch from Late Night 1994 seem to be much more sex-based than what I associate with O’Brien. This, however, might just be an anomaly, since Conan sort of calls this out himself. After a joke about masturbation, Conan remarks that his mother, at her house, just turned of the television. Perhaps this was just night was just a fluke, or perhaps at this point, this was Conan’s attempt at pandering to a young demographic.
At the desk, Conan and Andy banter back and forth, asking about one another’s New Year’s plans. When Andy states that he’s just going to sit home and watch the ball drop, Conan remarks, “You should get drunk as well to complete that sad, lonely image.” They then segue into a year in review segment, which they do through one of Late Night with Conan O’Brien’s earliest recurring bits: the Clutch Cargo interview.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this bit, these were segments in which Conan would interview “Bill Clinton,” or “Bob Dole,” or “Michael Jackson” by showing a still image of that figure on the television with the lips of a performer (almost always Robert Smigel), impersonating that person. As far as I can find, this may be the first retrospective clip package used on Late Night, which makes sense, as this is one of the show’s longest running bits. Throughout this segment there are a number of standout moments, which makes sense, since you can cram a whole year’s worth of your best jokes into five minutes. I wish I could just run a clip of the whole thing, or transcribe them all, but instead I’ll give you a sample of my favorites.
When Senator Jesse Helms caused controversy by criticizing Clinton and threatening him:
Helms: (sigh) Sorry I said you were a bad commander in chief…
Conan: Very good. Mr. President?
Clinton: I’m sorry for being a… bad commander in chief.
After the Whitewater scandal, Clinton had to make painful cuts to his crime bill package:
Clinton: Well, it’s still packed with tough policies. Page 74! If you rob a bank, you can not open an account at that branch!
On the Grammy Awards controversy, when Frank Sinatra’s rambling acceptance speech for his Lifetime Achievement award was cut off:
Conan: Mr. Sinatra, but we heard that one of your own people cut you off.
Sinatra: So help me, Johnny, if I find the person who done that, I’ll sell his shoes for a nickel and use it to buy napkins. There are only two kinds of guys in this world, baby: the kind of marbles you throw at a speedboat, and that time I went to Monte Carlo with Debbie Reynolds.
And there are so many more, like Clinton subjugating Jimmy Carter, the time the TV screen retracted to the ceiling and Bob Dole refused to stop talking, and Clinton being asked about Syria and responding that he never laid a hand on her. In addition to Smigel, many of the other writers got to lend their talents such as Dino Stamatopoulos as the squeaky voiced Michael Jackson and Louis CK as Ted Kennedy and Jesse Helms.
Throughout this evening there were two other desk bits. The first felt very different from what the show traditionally does, but was also rather entertaining, perhaps for that reason, and its very short length. Conan announces a countdown of his top 5 songs of the year, but rather than showing music videos of the songs of 1994 being performed, instead we are treated to clips of Conan in the shower singing “Mr. Jones” by the Counting Crows, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by Crash Test Dummies while waking to work, and “Help Me, Rhonda” from inside a bathroom stall.
The second pre-taped bit occurs halfway through the show and is introduced by Conan as a way to recognize the dedicated professionals who work on the program. As jaunty holiday music plays beneath their greetings, just under 20 employees working in various capacities on Late Night all introduce themselves and their jobs in a particular way to the viewing audience: “Hi, I’m Andrea Miller and I’m the makeup artist for that bastard Conan O’Brien.” Each of the employees (Max Weinberg included) gives the exact same message and it remains funny for a little while. As a way to give those who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to be on camera some airtime, it’s a fun idea, but as a comedy piece it gets old pretty quickly and starts to feel like a time killer.
The standup that evening was the wonderful Andy Kindler who is perfectly himself during his set. He launches in with his high-energy style immediately, practically shouting at the top, “Let’s get right to the jokes, shall we? No dilly-dallying.” And when his first joke gets a less than stellar response, he amends his punchline about a conversation with a friend: “AND WE BOTH LAUGHED! Come on people! Here’s my new character: the pleading comic! COME ON PEOPLE! With the comedy!” So much of Kindler’s style is in his performance, so I would only be doing a disservice to his jokes by transcribing them here, but his material felt like some of the freshest and timeliest from this episode that was recorded nearly 20 years ago, and that’s saying something.
The guests on panel that evening were Nicholas Turturro, (John’s brother), best known for his stint on NYPD Blue, and actress and singer Lainie Kazan who at that time was promoting a big New Years’ Eve performance in New York City the following night. Other than me telling you that Conan was much more comfortable in these conversations than we had seen in the past, there’s not much else to tell you about that remains interesting in 2014, except for Conan being unable to hide his incredulousness at the price for a ticket to Kazan’s show on New Years Eve. She calls him out for reacting so strongly to the $300 per plate ticket price and as a result he states over and over again throughout the interview how insane a price that is. It makes for entertaining television, but I’m not sure if Conan O’Brien today would call out a guest in the same way.
And so we leave O’Brien as he moves into year two of Late Night. His performance as host has improved significantly since the early days as we see in this episode. For the most part, the critics of 1994 still hadn’t warmed to Conan’s style, but as he progressed, many of them would be changing their tune. But how long would it take? Find out in the next installment of From the Archives: Hey, Let’s Watch Some Old Late Nights and See What We Can Learn, coming a long time from now, probably!