Conan O'Brien's Three-Year Overnight Success

Page 3 of 4

His "Batman" Thing
Part 1

I maintain that the television series Batman is one of the most brilliant pieces of American art in the last 30 years," says Conan O'Brien. When he was at Harvard, Burt Ward was invited to lecture about his role as Robin on Batman. According to the ads, Ward was bringing the original Robin costume, said to be valued at $500,000.

O'Brien: "So Burt Ward gave an interview to the school paper and sounded really pompous. We knew we had to do something."

That something, as it turned out, involved O'Brien and a friend procuring security-guard uniforms.

"We went up to him and said, 'Hello, Mr. Ward, the dean is worried about the safety of the costume,'" continues O'Brien. "He didn't question for a second that the dean of a major university would dispatch guards for the Robin costume. He was like, 'Excellent, I thought someone would be by.'"

During a post-lecture question-and-answer session, another friend stood up in the auditorium, dressed as the Penguin – despite the fact that he was behaving more like the Riddler – and asked, "When is a costume not a costume? When it's stolen."

O'Brien: "And just then we had someone turn off all the lights like in a bad movie. But, of course, in the movies it's pitch-black, and here it's really just a little dimmer. Which is an important thing to know for anyone out there contemplating a crime. So it gets grayish brown, and we grab the costume and take off."

A chase ensued, with O'Brien and Co. eventually escaping to a hide-out where they took turns phoning up Burt Ward and snapping pictures of one another dressed as the caped crusader's sidekick. O'Brien and his friends were in hysterics. Burt Ward was less than amused.

"I love in life when people act like you think they would," says O'Brien. "He was on the phone going, 'That costume better be returned or you're in big trouble, mister. You're not going to get away with this.'"

O'Brien laughs – you know the sound – and continues: "We eventually got it back to him, but it was not worth $500,000. If you went to his car and jimmied open the trunk, there'd be like 10 more there. Like he's always giving them to girls."

The moment you walk into Conan O'Brien's apartment, you're hit with a series of disclaimers: It is a mess because he has just returned from vacation; half the furniture is not actually his – he's subletting; he knows the small pencil drawing of him hanging on the wall looks eerily like Eddie Munster, but what are you going to do? It was sketched and signed by Tony Bennett.

O'Brien grabs some beers from the fridge and settles in next to his girlfriend, Lynn Kaplan. The pair (she is a talent booker on Late Night) have been dating for three years and over the summer began living in sin in this sparse but elegant apartment with enormous windows. The building itself is less a civilian dwelling than a supermodel dormitory – Linda Evangelista lives next door; Cindy Crawford is down the hall – and O'Brien confesses to being unsure of proper celeb-to-supermodel etiquette.

"What am I supposed to do?" he asks, leaning back in his chair, sipping a beer. "Am I required to say something to these people?"

While this is a beautiful location to play out one's personal life, O'Brien has little time for such a distraction. It is almost as if he doesn't want to bother existing outside of the show. Friends talk of his confidence in the face of cancellation, but insecurity floats beneath the surface, suggesting that while he is overjoyed to have the show, he borders on being apologetic. He works until at least 9, even on nights when there is little for him to do.

"I was a hard-working guy who was intense about comedy and his career before I did this," says O'Brien. "And this is that times three or four. I cannot imagine ever giving to anything else the way I do this." He pauses. "I worry about having kids and doing this."

He has spent time in therapy, hoping to better deal with what he calls "recurring habits of depression and beating up on myself." It's just that nothing is as real to him as the nightly hour of make-believe he lords over.

"It's a sickness," O'Brien says, "There are times where we'll do a piece and I know that there are even hardcore fans who didn't see it. It breaks my heart. I was a big fan of Late Night With David Letterman in the '80s, and sometimes weeks would go by, and I wouldn't see it. And that kills me."

O'Brien laughs – not so much the sound you are used to but something sadder – and shakes his head: "We put in so much effort, and we think about it and work so hard. It's on at 12.35 at night." He laughs again. "There's times I wish I could just come out and talk about fruit that I bought at the market and then have Andy sit on a stool and sing a song."

The good news is that slowly, O'Brien is taking steps toward living a life outside the NBC studios. He just bought a weekend place in Connecticut – "Nothing crazy or anything," he says – and confesses to being a sucker for virtually any movie, especially violent ones and documentaries.

Back in supermodel central, O'Brien gets antsy, grabs his beer and stands to host a tour of the apartment. He walks down the hallway, steps over an unpacked suitcase and scales the stairs to rummage through the second floor's book selection. He holds one in the air.

"This is it," he says, "one of the few laugh-out-loud novels I've read. Go ahead, borrow it."

No, really, but thank you.

"Seriously," says O'Brien. "Just get it back to me."

He hands over the book, Masters of Atlantis, by Charles Portis, and walks downstairs for more show and tell, this time unpacking the prized Gretsch guitar he recently purchased. It is one of the few indulgences he has allowed himself (he still drives his 1991 Ford Taurus, for instance), and it is obvious he takes great pride in it, ultimately placing it carefully back in its case like a father tucking his child into a crib.

O'Brien distractedly saunters back into the hall. It is getting late. There is work to obsess over tomorrow, so O'Brien shows his guest to the door and suggests taking the stairs to better appreciate the old building's architecture. The next day, when he realizes the book he has loaned was left behind in his apartment, Conan the librarian sends it along by messenger.

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