His "Batman" Thing
As an adult, O'Brien once dragged his entire family to a Batman convention to meet the show's star, Adam West. So when O'Brien says, "I never really had big aspirations toward working on sitcoms," you know there is one notable exception. The title was Lookwell. In 1991, O'Brien and fellow Batman obsessive Robert Smigel, his friend from SNL, made a pilot for NBC. Of course, it starred Adam West.
Smigel: "We were so happy. We had to fight so hard to get Adam West to be the guy."
O'Brien; "He played an actor named Ty Lookwell who had a hit show in the 70s, a Quinn Martin production. And when he had the show, he got to go to all these law-enforcement luncheons, and it went to his head a bit. So he thinks he can solve crimes. He carries around a badge that's encased in a Lucite block and shows it to people. He wears turtlenecks. He's a little down on his luck but just gets by. At the time I thought Adam West was just right."
The show did not get picked up by the network.
"There's actually a little cult following of the pilot episode," says Smigel. "That's kind of nice. I'm really proud of it. But I was so disappointed that we didn't get to revive Adam West's career."
You wouldn't imagine that a man who makes nearly $2 million a year would have a giant gherkin pickle in his office, but there it is, propped against the wall, just behind an amplifier, piles of gadgets and an enormous painting of Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed.
The entire Late Night headquarters has the feel of a freshman dorm where the hall monitors have been assassinated. Shouts filter up and down the horseshoe-shaped corridors; Andy Richter, who is fond of saying, "If I play my cards right, I won't have to say a word tonight," strolls around barefoot, wearing shorts and a T-shirt; in the conference room there is a stack of TV Guides with O'Brien on the cover; some of them have been defaced to make him, among other things, a pirate, a woman, a devil and a member of Kiss.
It's doubtful that so much brainpower has ever come together to produce something so silly. O'Brien was an American-history and -literature major at Harvard. His thesis was on Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner – "The least funny thing I ever wrote," he says. His head writer, Jonathan Groff, is a five-time Jeopardy! champion. "Our comedy is not real, in a way," says Groff. "It's not ironic and winking. Letterman did this show for 11 years and blew past so many boundaries. It's been kind of fun for us to go back and say, 'What if we don't deconstruct this?'" Which is a better way of saying that Late Night strives to keep up the walls between viewer and performer. It also attempts to stay away from topicality. Instead of Kathie Lee Gifford jokes, for instance, you get Celebrities in a Box, a segment in which Nipsey Russell and Hair Club for Men president Sy Sperling were locked in a box. Using time-lapse photography, the progress of their acquaintance was monitored.
"Conan's humor was never insensitive, which is what I always admired about him," says Lisa Kudrow when asked if O'Brien always tended toward the surreal. "He didn't have to destroy anyone in order to be funny."
The show still considers itself edgy; it's just that O'Brien and his writers try to remain true to their initial vision for Late Night, creating a world and environment that are decidedly other. It is a direction plotted by O'Brien and Smigel with the help of original writers Louie C.K. and Dino Stamatopoulos, all of whom, surprisingly, have no ties to Harvard Lampoon. To date, in fact, Late Night has hired only one Lampoon alumnus.
"I have such mixed feelings about the Lampoon," says O'Brien, sitting on a couch in his office. "On the one hand, it was such a powerful thing to me. But it's pre-professional now. It's Humor Incorporated. When I got this show, people probably thought I was going to open up some secret book and fill the staff with the Harvard Lampoon, and I didn't do that."
O'Brien stands and walks out of his office to introduce various scruffy members of the writing staff, obviously pleased with the ragged assemblage of comic misfits and performers that stalks the halls. It is a type of Wild Bunch, perhaps less homicidal but equally willing to try anything, all equally defensive about perceptions that the show has suddenly, miraculously sprung from the ashes.
"I'm sick of hearing about how the show's gotten better," says Richter matter-of-factly. "Yeah, from the first six months. But it's been a pretty good show for a couple of years now. Duh."
Richter grins and follows O'Brien as he heads downstairs to the studio, where he slips out of his jeans and dons a suit for a lighting test on the new set. O'Brien proudly remarks that back in the days of SNL and The Simpsons, he was a guy who sat around all day wearing T-shirts and thinking of off-the-wall ways to make people laugh, and now he is that same person – only for one hour a day he is required to play dress-up.
This story is from the September 19th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.
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