From Talk Show News
July 18, 2010
One of the great pleasures of living in the San Francisco Bay Area is Sketchfest, an outstanding comedy festival held every January. Sketchfest lures the biggest names in comedy to San Francisco, and seven months ago, they had a particularly juicy event on the schedule — Conan O’Brien was slated to come to town to receive a special award and appear in conversation with comedian Jimmy Pardo at the Herbst Theater. The day of the tribute? Jan. 17. Which turned out to be a mere 10 days after NBC declared it was moving Jay Leno back to 11:35 PM.
We all know what happened next, which is why it wasn’t a huge surprise that the Sketchfest gig was canceled. Then Conan went on his Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television tour, and I don’t think anyone expected the tribute to be rescheduled. And yet an email appeared in my inbox one week ago saying that the show was on again, with one of the funniest people alive, Patton Oswalt, joining Conan and sidekick Andy Richter onstage. Short notice, but what the heck — I canceled my plans and bought tickets… again.
Anyone who’s been missing Conan O’Brien got a megadose of the former “Tonight” host, as he held court at the Herbst for over three hours. What’s more, he and Oswalt consumed two bottles of red wine as they chatted — Richter joined them about an hour into the conversation — making for a candid, loose and, above all, funny evening.
Oswalt came out onstage and declared that he’d tried his best to get O’Brien and Richter drunk during dinner at local tapas restaurant Andalu (“@conanobrien and @andy_richter are seriously hammered,” he tweeted). Conan got a standing ovation from the capacity crowd, and immediately apologized for missing the January date, explaining that “the shit hit the fan.” “I’ve never canceled anything,” he said.
Despite his prodigious alcohol consumption, anyone expecting Conan to trash-talk Leno or NBC — or, for that matter, give anything away about his upcoming TBS show — would have been disappointed. O’Brien spoke about the changes he’s seen during his years in the biz, stating that “the people behind the curtain are scared shitless right now. You can fear change or you can choose to embrace it and get excited by it,” he said. “I choose to embrace and get excited by it.”
Perhaps explaining why he went to basic cable instead of pursuing a deal at Fox, Conan said that what matters in the business now isn’t who’s got the most people watching them, but “who is watching you and your relationship with those people. Something is happening in the way people communicate… we’re going through a seismic change.”
O’Brien made frequent reference to the young crowd at the event — the 47-year-old isn’t exactly Gramps O’Brien, but the world he described when he talked about the old, three-network universe does seem like an eternity ago. The fledgling writer, just out of Harvard, “made a pledge that I wasn’t going to work on a show I didn’t believe in,” which left him with two choices: “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night with David Letterman.” (He mentioned the sitcom “Benson” as an example of what he did not aspire to.) “Today, there are 175 channels — you can get a pure hit of exactly what you want.”
Of course, he wound up at “SNL” after a couple writing gigs in L.A., and his association with Lorne Michaels led to his being hired to succeed Letterman when he left for CBS.
O’Brien talked about his early days at NBC, back in the days when the network was so nervous about the unknown redhead that “they canceled me at one point and decided [to un-cancel 'Late Night' because] they didn’t have a replacement. They put me on 13-week contracts. They wanted to put me on week-to-week contracts, and we argued them to 13 weeks.”
That meant O’Brien and his team had nothing to lose, so he was able to experiment — “I just wanted to do weird, funny things and see if it worked.” An audience question led O’Brien to reminisce about some of the show’s least popular characters, like Quacky the Scientologist duck and Randy the Pyloric Sphincter.
All in all, Conan came across as such a decent guy — he answered audience members thoughtfully and sincerely, even as he played around with them a bit (one guy had to show Conan his driver’s license because O’Brien didn’t believe that his first name was really Lazar) — that I hesitate to imply that he took any potshots at Leno, but there were a couple exchanges that could be interpreted that way. Talking about his admiration for comedian Jack Benny, O’Brien said he had been influenced by the fact that while Benny was “the funniest guy of his generation, everybody who knew him says he was a great guy, a great husband, a great father. Your comedy and your morality are all interconnected.” Conan said it was important to him that he too be thought of as a great husband & dad, not just a comedian. Hmm… now which late night host is a famous workaholic with no kids?
“The most overrated thing in broadcasting is longevity,” said O’Brien. “I’ve told my wife this — I don’t have to last forever.” That unintentional witticism led to much laughter from the audience; we were almost as loopy as the performers by this point. “There’s this mania to stay relevant forever, and I reject that. I’m OK with not being number one.”
Conan called on young people who aspire to careers in comedy to get their stuff on YouTube, and the cream will rise to the top. He also said not to be too sensitive to criticism — “If you think you have something to say, you’re going to get criticized. I can get my feelings hurt by a valet parker who says the wrong thing.” The answer is “not to become less sensitive… the trick is to keep going anyway.”
As the clock went past 11 PM, I suspect Conan could have kept going for another hour, even though he was getting a bit hoarse. But after taking a few last questions, sitting on the edge of the stage to be closer to the fans lined up to talk to him, it was finally time to go. Besides, the wine bottles were empty (Patton shook them upside-down just to be sure).