From The San Francisco Chronicle
July 19, 2010
By David Weigand
Comic, talk-show host and latent motivational speaker Conan O’Brien finally got his due from San Francisco Sketchfest at the Herbst Theatre on Saturday night. Joined by sidekick Andy Richter and comic Patton Oswalt, O’Brien proved himself the kind of guy a crowd of 700 people might want to join for a bottle of wine.
Actually, make that two bottles, drunk mostly by Oswalt and O’Brien in a meandering, three-hour program during which O’Brien apologized for missing the originally scheduled tribute from the ninth annual Sketchfest in January. The event had been planned for the Sunday after NBC decided to return Jay Leno to his 11:30 p.m. time slot, which eventually led O’Brien to throw in the towel after nearly 17 years on the network. Oh, that.
O’Brien apologized several times for having to cancel the original date. In fact, he said a lot of things several times, especially after wine. (“It’s just wine,” Richter said dismissively. “That’s like food.”)
It was a long but rather extraordinary evening with the three comics seated on orange plush chairs usually reserved for City Arts and Lectures guests. (“It’s like the set of ‘Masterpiece Theatre,’ but with content that is way below any Nickelodeon show,” O’Brien quipped.) What made the night long was that there was no script, but that’s also what made it special. The lanky, bearded guy with the Woody Woodpecker pompadour, known for taking smart-aleckiness to new heights on TV, turns out to be a real softy, with a genuine appreciation for everything he’s achieved in his career, and a credible hope to be able to pass the luck down to a younger generation.
He marveled at how TV has changed since he first auditioned for “Late Night” at the age of 29: “It used to be ‘who’s got the most people watching?’ ” he said. “Now it’s ‘who are these people who are watching you?’ ”
As for that dust-up with NBC in January, if O’Brien was flattened by the network’s decision at the time, he convinced the crowd that he’s more than over it because change is necessary in life and TV.
“Fans don’t want things to change,” he said, “but they have to change. I’d rather do that than just stay in New York and do the same bits over and over again.”
Of course, there were a lot of jokes, too, and a whole lot of real improv. O’Brien recalled meeting Richter for the first time in a Jewish deli in the San Fernando Valley where Richter ordered borscht and a knish.
“I ordered a bowl of mayonnaise,” O’Brien deadpanned. “Mayonnaise with a Communion wafer.”
And then he turned into a kind of Norman Vincent Peale of comedy, insisting that having a working moral compass, setting ego aside and understanding that “it’s the depth and meaning of the connections you have with people” that really mean something in life.
He recalled writing a fan letter in 1980 to the author E.B. White, in which he confessed he was skittish about pursuing his own writing because he was sensitive to criticism. White wrote back and told him that if he wanted to be a writer, he had to get it. That advice has grounded him through a career where he’s been able to work only on shows he believed in, he said.
Noting the titanic changes in media in recent years, O’Brien, who will launch a talk show on TBS in the fall, said the explosion of the Internet and platforms like YouTube have greatly expanded the opportunities for young comics to be seen by millions.
By contrast, when he became the host of “Late Night” in 1993, the only available photo of him was a shot with Leno from the latter’s on-air announcement that O’Brien had been hired.
“Today, 75,000 people could replace me and there would be miles of footage of them,” he said, adding that if the Internet had been a factor in 1993, “I’d have lost my job to a cat s- on a toilet.”
He shrugged off the suggestion that his iconoclastic approach to TV was in any way “brave.”
“I just surrounded myself with people who had the same religious devotion to comedy,” he said. “We were just funny people who wanted to do something funny.”