”He never became overtly political, he never chose to go down that path out of fear of losing his popularity,“ longtime friend and collaborator Robert Smigel tells TheWrap
When Conan O’Brien hangs up his late-night mic on Thursday, he will arguably be the last of a dying breed of TV hosts who stayed as far away as he could from political commentary.
“I’m very grateful that we had the opportunity to start that show at a time where that kind of silliness was still something that — it needed to be nurtured and needed to find its audience — but there was still a place for it,” Robert Smigel, a longtime friend and collaborator, told TheWrap.
Join WrapPRO for Exclusive Content,
Full Video Access, Premium Events, and More!
O’Brien is leaving a space that looks markedly different than when he was first tapped to replace David Letterman as host of NBC’s “Late Night” in 1993, one that demands hosts to have an opinion on the day’s news. And punishes those who don’t.
“I give Conan a lot of credit, because he never wavered from his sense of humor. He never became overtly political,” Smigel continued. “He never chose to go down that path out of fear of losing his popularity.”
O’Brien’s 28-year run as a late-night TV host, spread across three shows on two networks, is dwarfed only by late-night icons Johnny Carson and Letterman. When O’Brien ends his TBS show this week, that will leave Jimmy Kimmel as the longest-tenured late-night host at 18 years. “He’s right up there with Letterman, as somebody who really did some extraordinary innovation who use the television art form, in ways that it hadn’t ever been ever been done before,” Syracuse professor and media historian Robert Thompson said.
You would have been hard pressed to predict Conan would become among the most celebrated late-night hosts, even as his impact has waned amid the current crop of late-night shows that pretty much have all taken on a political slant.
“Conan’s work on TBS was not any worse, was not any less interesting than then the work that he’d done on network TV,” Thompson argued. “It’s not that Conan changed. Late-night comedy changed, and all of a sudden, what Conan did wasn’t what everybody was paying attention to.”
When NBC was looking for a replacement for Letterman on “Late Night,” Lorne Michaels plucked O’Brien out of relative obscurity as a writer for “The Simpsons” and Michaels’ “Saturday Night Live.” Fellow “SNL” writer Robert Smigel would become O’Brien’s first head writer for his version of “Late Night” — most will remember Smigel for birthing the foul-mouthed puppet Triumph: The Insult Comic Dog, who became a mainstay during O’Brien’s “Late Night” tenure.
O’Brien’s debut was savaged by critics, including one memorable takedown by Washington Post’s Tom Shales, who described O’Brien’s “Late Night” as “an hour of aimless dawdle masquerading as a TV program.” Three years later, Shales would change his tune.
“Conan’s critics were unusually cruel. I mean, he was following Letterman,” Smigel said. Only Stephen Colbert knows what that is like, but Smigel pointed out that at least Colbert had his years hosting “The Colbert Report” to fall back on. “Conan’s situation was incredibly unusual and Lorne Michaels took an amazing chance.”
Smigel, who was “Late Night’s” head writer for its first two years and continued with the show for its first seven, said the staff remained confident O’Brien would break through eventually. “When we started the show, the No. 1 goal became how do we get Conan to be as funny as he is in real life. And it took a few years for him to get super comfortable in front of an audience,” he said.
For much of his late-night career, O’Brien was joined by Andy Richter, who served as his onscreen sidekick much the same way Ed McMahon played off Carson during his legendary run on “The Tonight Show.”
“We were just learning on the job. So you can either be completely stymied by that, and then have it freak you out totally, or you can just go: Well, s—, I’m here, I’m gonna try and just throw things at the wall and see what sticks. And that was sort of what we did as a collective,” Richter told TheWrap. “We were creating stuff in reaction to David Letterman, having taken over his time slot. I mean, it couldn’t be more obvious that we were working in reaction to him.”
O’Brien would find his niche, and his audience, in much the same way Letterman did when he began “Late Night” in the 1980s. Thompson remembers during the ’90s his college students would often talk about what they saw on O’Brien the night before.
“It’s pretty cool to be part of something that was formative on people that care about comedy,” Richter said.
O’Brien’s late-night tenure straddled two completely different worlds. When he started, late-night TV was still exclusively a network TV domain and hosts like Carson and his “Tonight Show” successor, Jay Leno, would never delve into politics, much less take a specific opinion on a current issue. Smigel said that all began to change after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
“Comedy was never really the same after that. People were just so much more invested in current events from that moment on, and it’s never really gone back,” he said. “There was a period when Obama was in charge, where it sort of calmed down a little bit, but for the most part, it’s just been a very intense time and ‘The Daily Show’ sort of started to flourish at that time, and that show has had more influence on late-night than anybody else.”
Jon Stewart’s tenure on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” proved that viewers were not only willing, but were actively seeking out their news from comedy shows. “The Daily Show” was front and center of the trend of political late-night comedy, which led to “The Colbert Report,” “Last Week Tonight,” “Real Time” and “Full Frontal,” among others.
“That really changed the rules of engagement for late night,” Thompson said. “And even people like Letterman, who had been very apolitical, began to move more in that direction. And that just isn’t what Conan did.”
After the seven-month debacle that marked his “Tonight Show” tenure, O’Brien launched a new show on TBS that matched the absurdist tone of his previous broadcasts. (The one-hour show was scaled back to a half-hour two years ago.)
And he remained on the political sidelines even as Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency in 2015 and 2016 practically swallowed up all the air in the room. Late-night hosts, many of whom had strong personal feelings against Trump and the many ways he would viciously disparage people or institutions he did not like, felt they could no longer hold back.
“The culture itself had so shifted and had become so focused on a couple of very specific stories, that comedy, of course, had to adjust to it as well,” Thompson said. “Comedy is an organic thing. It’s always adapting and responding to what’s going on in the culture. And I think there was that period where it was really hard not to be talking about what was going on in national politics.”
O’Brien, however, never followed that trend, even if his cultural impact (and TV ratings) suffered for it. “Conan’s” first month on TBS in November 2010 drew about 2.4 million viewers. The next year, it was around 1 million per episode. By 2018, “Conan’s” TV audience was in the 300,000s. His final season has averaged just 282,000 total viewers per episode (read more about his ratings slide here).
“It’s not necessarily the trend in late night comedy, but I think there’s still an audience for it that really appreciates it,” Smigel says of O’Brien’s type of silly approach to comedy. “And you know, over the years, he sort of got away from doing too many topical things or desk pieces anyway, like almost as a reaction to what was happening in comedy.”
O’Brien is not hanging it up for good. He is set to launch a weekly series for HBO Max, though nobody really knows what that will look like. Even Richter has no idea if he’ll be part of the new show. “Nobody knows what it’s gonna be,” he says. “Is there going to be space for me? Is it going to make sense for me to be there?”
In some ways it makes perfect sense for O’Brien to fully move from linear TV into the streaming world. When he was moving on from “The Tonight Show” and starting “Conan,” he was among the first late-night hosts to realize that his viewers were not watching him at 11 p.m., but rather the next morning on YouTube.
“The show really exists just to churn out stuff for the internet at this point because TBS was never a great time slot for a traditional late night talk show anyway,” Smigel said. “It didn’t matter because he built this incredible internet presence on YouTube and Twitter. So many people saw his best material that way.”
With O’Brien leaving the late-night space, it’s fair to wonder if there will ever be a time when late-night hosts won’t feel the need to straddle the line between comedy and newscast. Following multiple mass shootings over a single weekend in 2019, Kimmel expressed his dismay that “there’s now an expectation that late-night talk shows will address these horrible things. I wish we didn’t have to, but nobody is doing anything about it at all.”
Thompson said the fact that O’Brien is ending his show this week can be seen as proof that his type of comedy in late-night has gone the way of the dinosaurs. “It is harder to survive right now with that kind of programming, when you’re not doing the political stuff in an arena that’s very crowded,” he said. “On the other hand, I wouldn’t say that that’s going to be permanent.”
The end of “Conan” is coming as the late-night world is welcoming back its studio audiences following more than a year of shows without them. “It’s fun to have everybody kind of getting back together,” Richter said. “Conan” moved the show to the Los Angeles comedy club Largo during the pandemic, and last week welcomed back an in-person crowd. “Eventually there’ll be some melancholy that sets in. But it’s also it’s kind of open ended, because nobody knows what anything’s gonna be.”