Considering the weirdness that you might find on any given night of “Conan” on TBS, you may be surprised to learn that behind the scenes is… well, fairly normal.
That is, as long as they’re filming on set at the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles and not Cuba or Armenia or South Korea, as the show is prone to do these days. Anyway, sure, sometimes a camera crew might burst into your office to film a surprise comedy bit. But for the most part, “Conan” looks like any other office. Of course, when the afternoon hits, they have to produce an hour-long talk show.
Jeff Ross, O’Brien’s executive producer since his “Late Night” days in 1993 and one of his closest confidants, remembers when Johnny Carson’s executive producer gave him a piece of advice early on: “I’m gonna tell you one thing, kid! Whenever you do a show, it’s never as good as you thought it was, and it’s never as bad as you thought it was!”
That essentially sums up the mindset you need going into the never-ending grind of a daily late-night series. Here’s how a typical day on “Conan” can shake out.
People start to come in around 9 a.m., though things officially get started with an all-staff meeting at 10 a.m. The writers do the bulk of the work earlier — they’re split into two groups, a monologue team and a sketch team. The four-person monologue team starts by compiling a huge list of ideas and going over the news of the day, from politics to offbeat sociology or science stories. “We’re always grateful for any story about a fossil,” joked monologue writer Laurie Kilmartin, because that can easily be turned into a Larry King joke.
They write separately until around noon, when they meet and read over jokes, getting feedback and fixing grammar. They repeat this process several times throughout the day and pitch the ideas to O’Brien, who chooses his favorites, and they start crafting their individual jokes to build into one monologue.
The eight-person sketch team also meets in the morning, though their process is a little more unpredictable because they tend to formulate ideas from talking and riffing together, according to head writer Matt O’Brien (no relation, though Conan tells the interns he hired him as a favor to their Uncle Frank). Out of that morning meeting, the team usually gets one or two ideas which they put into the pipeline — then people disperse and work on individual comedy pieces.
Rehearsal typically occurs around 1:30 p.m., where Conan, Ross and the writers test some upcoming bits to see how the audience (made up of staffers and interns) responds. In recent years, the show started posting “Scraps” online, or scenes from rehearsal. It’s a casual atmosphere. No one wears makeup; O’Brien often strums a guitar at his desk; and as O’Brien puts it about his sidekick, “Andy [Richter] is there, dressed for reasons I don’t understand, like an eight-year-old boy.”
At a recent rehearsal, some bits went over very well, like a parody of “Creed.” It got tons of laughs, as did one about fake calendars that didn’t sell. However, O’Brien felt the latter wasn’t quite there: One calendar was called “Guys Grandma Thinks You Should Marry” and featured images of Anderson Cooper and Neil Patrick Harris — but he thought the font was all wrong. Another calendar was for people that hate cats, though O’Brien was disturbed that the cats in perilous situations (about to get run over, on fire) were adorable kittens. “Why is it a kitten?” he asked. “I think it should be an adult, disinterested cat.”
“Sometimes things that go horribly wrong in rehearsal end up on the air that way now; sometimes, rehearsal is funnier than the bit could have been if we had done it [as we planned],” said Mike Sweeney, the former head writer now in charge of travel episodes.
Late afternoon, etc.:
In between, there are meetings if O’Brien has a special event coming up. A couple weeks before O’Brien hosted the NFL Honors the night before the Super Bowl, he gathered writers in his office to work on a football-specific monologue. They tried to work up a quick sketch with Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, whom they were told would participate. (In the end, he didn’t.) They decided O’Brien, a Patriots fan, would announce on stage he had a devious scheme to mess with Manning’s head the night before the Super Bowl, and call Manning’s hotel room and wake him up. But then, who should O’Brien pretend to be when he called? Someone who would conceivably be immediately patched through to Manning’s room, but who? Archie? Eli? Papa John?
Then, there are some of O’Brien’s favorite bits, which involve simply putting members of his staff on camera. “It comes out of a need for material, a need for killing time,” Ross said. “We might as well play with the environment… and it’s fun.”
For example, when O’Brien’s assistant Sona Movsesian sent an all-office email when her “Gigolos” mug was stolen, O’Brien used it as an opportunity to conduct a hilarious investigation. “It’s very organic. It’s never me saying I want to be on camera, or them saying ‘We want you to be on more,'” said Movsesian, who has been increasingly appearing in bits, including the entire Armenia episode. “If the opportunity presents itself, then we do that and make it work.”
It’s the same with Jordan Schlansky, the associate producer now famous for his eccentric, robotic responses to O’Brien’s silliness. The dynamic between the two has become a fan favorite, as O’Brien has done everything from set up cameras to catch him coming in late on Fridays to throwing him an impromptu bachelor party. Schlansky says he never knows when a camera might appear in his office.
“At this point, anything that happens in my personal life I have to understand is fair game, whether I like it or not. I always try to remind myself that we work in entertainment, and that’s our business and that’s our venture,” Schlansky said. “And if I can serve that cause in some small way by creating some entertainment based on the things that happen in my life, then I’m happy to have been able to contribute like that.”
There’s usually a scramble in the hour before the show to get the monologue exactly right, as O’Brien goes in for hair and make-up and says hello to the celebrity guest. Around 3:30 p.m. the studio audience starts streaming in. There’s a warm-up comic, and then at 4:30 p.m. on the dot, the music starts and O’Brien storms out on stage, string dance and all. The show wraps at 5:30 p.m. An hour later, most of the staff starts to head out — all in all, a fairly regular workday.