weird jobs

Riding With Conan

Photo: Sona Movsesian

Any ardent and longtime devotee of Conan O’Brien is aware and likely fond of Sona Movsesian, the late-night host’s personal assistant who evolved into a sidekick and comic foil in his podcasts and pretaped Conan segments. But she’s still O’Brien’s assistant, a job she loves and keeps despite not performing it well or with much effort, as detailed in her loose, charming, and amusing book The World’s Worst Assistant, sort of a showbiz memoir and collection of stories about life in the trenches of Hollywood’s underbelly of underlings. Movsesian is admittedly lazy, forgetful, and unrepentant, unwilling to stress herself out over the mundane details of a job. She also works for an absolute legend in O’Brien, apparently an easy and forgiving boss who dishes out lighthearted teasing of Movsesian and takes it in return.

If you’ve ever wondered how someone as hilariously anti-work as Movsesian got her job and what her whole deal is or wanted to hear day-to-day behind-the-scenes details of O’Brien’s various late-night talk shows, this is the book for that along with lots of tips on how to be a bad assistant and how to deal with bosses, both the bad ones and the good ones. O’Brien probably falls in the latter category. In this excerpt from The World’s Worst Assistant, she helps shield him from unwanted paparazzi attention during the very public and very contentious demise of his Tonight Show–hosting tenure.

Excerpt from 'The World's Worst Assistant'

I had worked for Conan for almost a year when he got word that there were going to be changes in the late-night lineup — and that the network was considering putting Jay Leno back in the 11:35 p.m. slot. Jay had embarked on an ill-advised 10 p.m. show that tanked, and because of his contract, NBC realized it would be more cost efficient to keep him on the air. Their proposed solution was to give him a half-hour show at 11:35 p.m., which was coincidentally the same time as The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien. That would push The Tonight Show to a start time of 12:05 a.m., removing the literal meaning of “tonight.”

What followed after was the most inspiring, emotional, frustrating, and educational moment in my career.

Inspiring because of the massive support Conan and the show got from his audience. Conan’s fan base has always been ardent, and they showed up when we all needed them the most. I had known he was beloved before I started working for him, but I didn’t realize how beloved until this moment.

Emotional because no one knew what was going to happen. So many of my colleagues on the show had moved their entire lives from New York to California to work on a show that now faced uncertainty. We were also overwhelmed with the love we were getting not just from the fans but from allies at the network and the press.

It was a frustrating time because I had worked for the publicity department at the network before I started working for Conan, and I suspected they were the source of so much misleading information that came out in the press. It was jarring to think some of the people I used to work with might now be the people who were trying to disparage my new boss with planted stories and anonymous quotes.

And the time was educational because, up until this moment, I had been shielded from the ugliness of television. I never truly saw the ruthless underbelly that existed below the flowery surface — the dynamics I knew were there but naïvely believed I would never have to see. I saw people I would work with on a daily basis take sides. I also came to think Jay Leno might not be the nice guy I’d thought he was. The man who always boasted about not having an agent or manager was now teaching me how important it was to have an agent or manager. I couldn’t believe how quiet someone who had hosted The Tonight Show for 17 years seemed to be about the show being moved a half-hour later. Didn’t he also think it was a terrible idea? Or was he so desperate to get the show back that he would stop at nothing for the time slot? I didn’t know what to think anymore. All I knew was I was disappointed.

I tried to focus on the positives. Some would think my favorite memory from this time was the support from our fan base or the inspired writing on the show those last two weeks or the outpouring of support from some big names who made the end of The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien so memorable.

But my favorite moments have nothing to do with any of that. When Conan’s name was thrust even more into the spotlight, the press wanted any glimpse of him outside the studio. They started waiting for him down the street from his house. He didn’t love all the attention, especially at a time when there was so much uncertainty around his career, so he asked me to give him a ride to work. Why me? Easy. Because no one would believe he, Conan O’Brien, would drive around L.A. in a white 2007 Volkswagen Jetta. He was right. For two weeks, I drove from Pasadena to Brentwood, picked up Conan, and drove us both to work. Not a single member of the paparazzi knew where he went. We would drive straight through the throngs of photographers, and I’d park in his spot at the studio like a baller with him crouching in the back seat so no one would see him.

My other favorite moment happened very late in the evening when we were all waiting for Conan’s exit contract with NBC to be ready to sign.

Conan’s office was on one side of the hallway, and executive producer Jeff Ross’s office was on the other. In between, there was a conference room that was usually for meetings, but during those two weeks it was being used as a war room by an army of well-dressed attorneys who were negotiating with NBC around the clock.

The night after his final show, Conan was in his office with me and Rick Rosen, his longtime agent. We were waiting for the contract to be done. It was tense, to say the least.

We had nothing to do, so we started flipping through the channels, and we stumbled upon what was one of my favorite shows at the time — Bad Girls Club.

Bad Girls Club was a show on Oxygen that explored the lives of women who were … to put it delicately … easily triggered. The show took women and made them live in a house together, and then filmed everything that happened. It was The Real World with seven women with tempers and healthy libidos. They fought, they hooked up with strangers and one another, and they partied hard. If I could have an alter ego, it would be a Bad Girl from the Bad Girls Club.

I exploited Conan’s vulnerable moment and used it as an opportunity to catch up with this insane reality show. Conan, Rick, and I sat there without speaking. Conan and Rick were contemplating the next career move for Conan. I was contemplating how the Saddle Ranch on Sunset Boulevard was just as trashy then as it was when my friends and I had gone there five years earlier. Together, we watched these seven women fight one another and hook up with strangers for hours, until a lawyer walked into Conan’s office and told him it was time. The lawyer presented the exit contract for Conan to sign, and just like that, Conan ended his time with the network he had been a part of for over 16 years.

To this day, I can’t watch Bad Girls Club without thinking of that night — waiting with his powerful agent for a pivotal moment in my boss’s career to transpire while watching seven women fight at a nightclub in Hollywood.

In that moment, I could’ve encouraged some reflection, or better yet, I could’ve left Rick and Conan alone. There was so much on their minds, and I’m sure it didn’t help that I sat in between the two of them and made them watch a show that had the opposite of a calming effect. I could’ve done better. But I freaking love that show.

From The World’s Worst Assistant, by Sona Movsesian, to be published on July 19 2022 by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Sona Movsesian.

Riding With Conan