The Wichita State University mascot is an anthropomorphized stalk of wheat called the Wu-Shock. It has a choppy thatch of fried yellow hair, a sinister sideways smirk and weirdly bulbous cheekbones — and Conan O’Brien, looking at its picture, needs no more than five seconds to nail the thing’s unique grotesqueness: “It looks like John Tesh after he’s been dead for four days.” O’Brien is on the campus of a different college, University of California, Irvine, to tape a comedy segment that will run during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. UCI’s mascot, which has Dwayne Johnson biceps and a bullhorn-shaped nose, is Peter the Anteater. The basic premise of O’Brien’s visit here is twofold: 1) Learn from Peter how to rally a team to victory, and 2) Make fun of Peter, and other bizarre college mascots, mercilessly.
“It’s a standard remote,” says O’Brien, referring to those pre-taped bits in which he gets off the soundstage and into the world. “I like to go into these pretty much blind — with a sort-of-idea that changes as we go.” He’s sitting in one of the school’s athletics buildings, getting his signature bang-swoop blow-dried to its full glory while hashing out a provisional plan of attack with two of his longtime writers, Dan Cronin and Todd Levin. “We like to keep it organic, but we do prep work to have some beats in mind, to steer it,” says Levin. O’Brien, consulting pictures of various mascots, comes across Xavier University’s furry, shapeless Blue Blob. He frowns. “This could be anything,” he says. “This could be Ebola!”
At 52, Conan O’Brien has been a late-night host for 22 years, with a storied comedy career that remained essentially unstained by showbiz drama until 2010, when NBC, spooked by wobbly ratings, yanked The Tonight Show away from him after mere months. Four and a half years into his current run hosting TBS’s Conan, however, what seemed then like an epochal setback has proved itself, slowly but unmistakably, as a rebirth. O’Brien regularly snatches the coveted 18-49 demographic from competitors. His average viewership (including video-on-demand and the TBS and Team Coco websites) has surged to 1.3 million, and his YouTube channel had nearly doubled its audience from just six months ago, with 92 million video views a month.
A big part of O’Brien’s resurgence is his outsize viral success, enjoyed with a regularity that has come to seem routine: One recent remote, in which he suffered through a punishing Korean spa treatment, naked, with The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun, has tallied 9 million plays since its February broadcast. All the while, O’Brien’s taste for stoned-wiseasses-in-the-dorm absurdity remains undiminished. Just the other night, he built an entire bit around a wonderfully low-fi sight gag: A series of enormous cutout Robert Durst heads kept popping up around the set, the appearance of the millionaire alleged killer sending O’Brien and Andy Richter, his longtime sidekick, into frightened hysterics each time. “That felt good,” O’Brien says. “More of that. Let’s get crazy with it.”
A field producer leads O’Brien to his first UCI interview, at a basketball court. O’Brien is wearing a tight T-shirt and jeans; on his wrist is a customized black Rolex Milgauss that his wife, Liza, got him for his 50th birthday, which reads Team Coco, in orange, on the dial. On the court, O’Brien introduces himself to Helen and Maria, two young representatives of the Anteaters’ marketing team. There is no director: O’Brien picks the shot, with input from his writers and cameramen. The cameras start rolling, and O’Brien’s demeanor turns drily antagonistic. He calls the anteater a “lowly beast,” and produces a Photoshopped mock-up of the mascot, this one intended to make Peter appear more fearsome: His arms have been replaced with a chain saw and a lobster claw. “Would you consider this?” O’Brien asks. Soon, Peter shows up. O’Brien challenges him to a pushup contest, then cackles with glee as the mascot’s snout keeps bumping into the floorboards.