Sunday, December 19, 2010

Giggle In The Beast

While I disagree with his comic philosophy:

"People increasingly want comedy to mean something, and they want it to be relevant to what's happening in the world, and I've always believed the opposite, which is it should be irrelevant. It shouldn't mean anything. You shouldn't look for meaning in comedy. That's my religious conviction, and I'm orthodox about that."

I like it that Conan O'Brien is a True Believer. For him, comedy is everything; it defines his very essence. Which is good, given his exclamation point body, intellect and id. He'd be wasted as a sales rep, ridiculous in politics. The fates selected him as a clown, and few embrace their destiny as energetically as Conan.

Problem is, Conan sought meaning in the corporate abattoir. He really had no choice, since his lifelong dream was to host The Tonight Show. The gleam in his eye blinded him to the blood-splattered walls, or at least softened the horror. So when he finally realized his dream, Conan wasn't fully prepared for the big hammers swinging his way. He still admits to being stunned by it all.

This is the picture Bill Carter paints in his latest media insider book, The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy. While not as entertaining as The Late Shift, which covered the scramble between Leno and Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson, Carter's follow-up depicts an even darker corporate atmosphere, where new media threatens and frightens aging network execs who have no idea what the hell's going on. This leads to grand ideas, broken vows, constant lying and ass-covering, bitterness, anger, bruised egos and bottom-line hatchet jobs. Why any comedian would seek work in this world astounds me. If you score, the money's great. But there are countless unseen costs.

Though many famous names and off-stage powerbrokers populate Carter's book, this is really Conan O'Brien's story. Carter gives us Conan's deep background: an overachieving student from Brookline, Massachusetts, in love with showbiz, influenced by shows like SCTV, becoming the first two-term president of the Harvard Lampoon since Robert Benchley. After college, Conan wrote for a couple of LA-based shows; but his true desire was to work for David Letterman, whose style of humor Conan revered (along with Chris Elliott characters like The Guy Under the Seats).

Unfortunately for Conan, Letterman had his fill of Harvard writers, and hired an advertising copywriter instead of him. Conan landed at SNL, a great gig, but not what he wanted. Late at night, working on sketch ideas, Conan and his writing partner Greg Daniels would sneak into Letterman's studio, Daniels sitting in the audience, Conan behind Dave's desk. That's where the serious career bug bit.

Carter delves into Conan's evolving brand of comedy, a silly/surrealist mix of high concepts and broad gags. As strong and respected a writer as he was on SNL, Conan wanted to perform, but his persona didn't fit that show. He appeared in numerous sketches, mostly as an extra, small speaking parts here and there.

During the 1988 writer's strike, Conan and fellow SNL scribes Robert Smigel and Bob Odenkirk put together a stage revue in Chicago, The Happy Happy Good Show. By all accounts a very uneven effort, Conan's performance received respectful notice. It pushed him to eventually quit SNL in search of his ultimate purpose.

SNL was barely behind Conan when The Simpsons came calling. Again, it wasn't what he had in mind, but The Simpsons was too hot to pass up, so Conan joined a first-rate writing staff, his material soon making a mark. Around this time, the battle for Carson's chair was raging, won by Leno, sending Letterman to CBS. NBC asked Lorne Michaels to fill Letterman's Late Night slot, and Lorne considered numerous comics (Jon Stewart among them) as Letterman's replacement. None clicked. There was a serious effort to hire Garry Shandling, and had he said yes, Conan's improbable ascension would never have occurred. But Shandling declined, and the rest, as they say, is television.

I remember when Conan was picked to replace Letterman. The media went crazy, thinking the whole thing as a massive joke. It seemed like it at the time. A friend who hung around the SNL offices filled me in on Conan, how he was the most theatrical writer on the show, acting out routines while other writers simply read from their scripts. He was a natural performer, said my friend, so Lorne's gamble could well pay off. After watching a test show/audition taped on the Tonight Show set, NBC agreed that Conan offered something fresh, if raw and not fully formed. Several years after his rejection as a Late Night writer, Conan O'Brien was hosting the damn thing.

On paper, it was an unenviable task to succeed a legend like Letterman. But Conan and his creative team (which included Robert Smigel, Louis C.K. and Dino Stamatopoulos, a truly wild and original comic mind) embraced the challenge, moving away from Letterman's anti-talk show premise to a more conceptual area where anything went: fake guests, puppets, animation, puppies and kittens dressed like Hitler and Charles Manson.

NBC execs weren't thrilled with Conan's humor, which they considered more weird than funny (and many wanted sidekick Andy Richter fired). Before long, their hostility to Conan's comedy grew into outright disdain for the show. Low ratings didn't help, and there was growing talk that Greg Kinnear, whom the suits loved, would replace Conan. Fortunately for Conan, Kinnear chose a film career instead.

Carter shows us just how close Conan came to cancellation. It was NBC Entertainment honcho Don Ohlmeyer who provided the oxygen the show needed to find its audience, which it eventually did. More and more people were discovering that Conan's Late Night was one of the purest comedy talk shows ever aired. Its energy and inventiveness remain unmatched. So it was no surprise that once Conan's show took off, other suitors would call, big cash in hand. In 2001, Fox made Conan a major offer. This rattled NBC, and set in motion the next round of late night shuffling and betrayals.

NEXT: Conan walks into the big blades; Leno and Letterman continue their passive/aggressive dance; Kimmel, Ferguson, Stewart, and Colbert come into focus.