But all of that was nothing compared with the barrage of personal insults that awaited O’Brien and his sidekick, Andy Richter. It wasn’t so much that critics didn’t like the show, they just plain didn’t like O’Brien and Richter.
I have heard every euphemism for fat,” says Richter, a veteran of the Chicago improv scene. “It’s incredible. They don’t say, “The black actor Denzel Washington,’ or, ‘The medium-build Kevin Costner,’ or, The small, Jewish Dr. Ruth.’ But they say fat, chubby, portly, cherubic. All of which is fairly emasculating.”
Still, the noose stayed in the briefcase. O’Brien’s friends and family stress that, yes, it was a dark period, but, no, his confidence never waned. “The lows were probably as low or lower than people might think,” says his sister Jane, a writer on Cybil. But what became clear is that although it’s gut wrenching to read attacks in the press, at least his name is in the paper. Which means he must still be on the air.
I’m a realist,” says O’Brien. “I live in America in the 1990s, and I entered the ring of pop culture. I’m not going to lie to you. The criticism hurts. But what really saves you is that you have a show to do every day. You don’t have much time to sit around and say, ‘Maybe my laugh is awful, and maybe I do fiddle around too much; maybe I am awkward.'”
And then a funny thing happened on the way to extinction. Several, actually. Like Devil-Bear, a sketch in which O’Brien receives advice from a devil on one shoulder and a bear on the other – except that the bear is only able to give tips like, “When scratching yourself against a tree, do not use a pine tree or you will get all gooky.” And remote segments from events like 1994’s Woodstock concert and the MTV Video Music Awards, in which the overweight Richter has consistently proved himself to be one of the show’s most invaluable assets.
But the biggest difference is O’Brien himself. Where he once appeared more shocked than the rest of us that he was actually on television, now he is comfortable. The program was always intended to be a bizarre sketch-comedy show that just happened to include interviews – a type of alternative universe where men dressed up as flowers dance on the Brooklyn Bridge – and a large number of the show’s original staple comedy pieces (In the Year 2000) continue to be used.” All the plates were in the baby’s skull,” says O’Brien. “They just hadn’t fused yet.” Viewership is up 18 percent from the first year, and Late Night‘s audience has a higher percentage of 18- to 49-year-olds than that of Leno or Letterman; Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, who once called for O’Brien’s big-haired head on a stick, is now the show’s staunchest supporter; and for the first time, NBC has ponied up the cash for an anniversary show.
Then again, Late Night draws its guests from the celebrity JV squad and is still capable of missing wildly. On any given night, viewers might wonder what cable-access staff has taken the NBC studios hostage (the recent Nerdy Guy on Pommel Horse at the Beach springs to mind). But the laugh-to-cringe ratio is high enough to warrant a little forgiveness. Not to mention that O’Brien has turned into an excellent interviewer; He actually listens.
“I think the home audience needed time to trust Conan,” says original head writer Robert Smigel, a friend of O’Brien’s since they were writing partners at SNL. “We had sort of a cocky attitude. We really set out to do weird stuff. We just wanted to blow people away with how different the show was. But it is really about the host and about trusting the guy.”
Talk around NBC initially centered around placing that trust in Garry Shandling, but that quickly fell through. Ironically, O’Brien was asked to be the show’s producer and briefly helped search for a host before executive producer Lorne Michaels finally gave in to O’Briens suggestion – “How about this Conan guy?” – and called to inquire if he’d like to audition himself. In the end, O’Brien was the only person screen-tested.
“When I got this assignment, I thought I would not be predisposed to like the guy who replaced David Letterman,” says O’Brien. “So I probably wouldn’t have given me high marks in the beginning.”
He laughs – you know the sound – and then continues: “But now I’d really be into me.”
When he is on, which is often, Conan O’Brien possesses the kind of personality for which Ritalin was invented, often penning sketches for his writing staff in which he bounds across the room, acting out every role. “Even as a writer, I was a performer,” says O’Brien. “I tried to be the kind of guy who could shut the door and come out five hours later with something funny. But I was never any good at that. At The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, I was someone who would go to people and act it out for them.”
True to his word, O’Brien will launch into long, spontaneous monologues. He claims to not believe in studying comedy theory. Ask him what makes him laugh, and O’Brien will tell you, “The funniest thing in the world is when someone is acting foolish to get attention and then hurts himself.”