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Published:February 20th, 2009 08:24 EST
Conan O`Brien`s Days in Studio 6A Are Coming to an End

Conan O`Brien`s Days in Studio 6A Are Coming to an End

By Christopher HIllenbrand

After 16 years of being the brainy buffoon and whimsical host of Late Night, Conan O`Brien is tying up all his loose ends in the Big Apple as he prepares his departure from Late Night with Conan O`Brien. Former SNL cast member, Jimmy Fallon will be taking over Late Night on March 3rd while O`Brien bides his time until June when he becomes the new host of The Tonight Show.


NBC released the news that O`Brien will be replacing Jay Leno as the host of The Tonight Show on June 1st last July. Recently, Leno has retracted his statement that he wanted to leave late night television, and opted instead to host another late night how slated for the ten o`clock hour. A whirlwind of disputes arose between O`Brien and Leno over what many claimed to be Leno`s attempt to undercut Conan`s audience, but have since been dispelled.


Conan`s spacious office, overlooking the Rockefeller Center ice rink, has looked like a war zone in the past several weeks since he began packing all his belongings. Guitars, given to him and signed by greats like Les Paul, Brain Setzer, and Eddie Van Halen, lie willy-nilly about the floor with other souvenirs from his years on Late Night.


And after Friday the 20th, his last appearance as the host of Late Night, those and the rest of his mementos will be shoved some place in the 10.5 million dollar mansion he bought earlier last year in Los Angeles where he will soon be residing.


But like his curled-brow, nerdy sense of humor televised every night indicates, Conan is a thinker and has much to mull over from his wonderful years in Studio 6A. Lately, he`s been combing the greatest segments and tapings of his show from the past to air during the interim lapse between February 20th and March 3rd when Jimmy Fallon takes over. Some of the scheduled best-of shows are his personal favorites while most are suggestions shared by many fans who e-mailed them to him.


O`Brien spoke unabashedly of the experience from his perspective: for a while, I was in denial " oh, we`ll just stop doing this show and we`ll move on to the next one. That`s very me, very male. Men don`t like to say goodbye. My wife told me about six months ago, "I think you have to admit that you have mixed feelings about leaving this late-night show, it`s very emotionally charged for you. That`s OK." 


Conan had avoided watching his first show for years, but only within the last week did he sit down and watch every dreaded nuance of 16 years younger version of himself look anxious, uneasy, and unfit for the gig that David Letterman had hallowed only a year earlier.


Going into Studio 6A for the first time back in September 1993, O`Brien had only toiled behind the scenes on television. Prior to being hired as a television writer, O`Brien had already been the valedictorian of his high school in Brookline, Massachusetts and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with an AB in history and literature. He honed his comedic screenwriting craft in HBO`s Not Necessarily the News and on SNL in the late 80`s. After the 1987-1988 season of SNL, the SNL writers went on strike.


During the strike, Conan ventured to Chicago with fellow SNL writers Bob Odenkirk and Robert Smigel. Together, they produced an improvisational comedy variety show until the strike resolved by next season. In 1989, O`Brien and the SNL writing staff won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy or Variety Series for the next season. By 1991, he was brought onto The Simpsons` writing staff by Matt Groening. O`Brien had brainstormed with other screenwriters or solo on some of the finest episodes of The Simpsons: Marge vs. The Monorail, New Kid on the Block, Home Goes to College and Treehouse of Horror IV. O`Brien later became a producer for show during its 4th and 5th seasons and would collaborate as a ghostwriter on many of the episodes therein thru 1993.


On the recommendation of his former boss from SNL, Lorne Michaels, Conan auditioned to become the next Late Night host following David Letterman`s departure for CBS. Talk about irony coming full circle: Conan actually tested his hosting abilities on The Tonight Show set; in a mockup of a late night airing with Jason Alexander and Mimi Rogers as fake guests, Conan showed what kind of a host he would make, in front of NBC executives. Apparently, execs saw through the gangly awkwardness of the television tyro to his potential and offered him the spot on Late Night. O`Brien abnegated his obligations as producer/writer for The Simpsons for the chance of hitting the big time, even though his contract hadn`t yet expired. 


Late Night with Conan O`Brien debuted on September 13th and was immediately denounced by critics as a show hosted by a nobody undeserving of the spot. Even the intro sequence to the show featuring a cartoon impression of Conan uneasily pulling at his collar mocked his credibility in show business. Subsequently, the show suffered from poor ratings during its 1st 3 seasons. NBC held its breath every week, just waiting to pull the plug, and even snuck its own jabs at O`Brien`s  before critics even had a say. Just before O`Brien`s premier, NBC aired radio ads depicting O`Brien being recognized by someone as the guy who doesn`t deserve his own show! Conan wasn`t his best means of support either from the beginning, as his geeky anxiety and stage fright before the camera only fueled the opinion that he should be pulled from the show.


According to many, he really wasn`t fit to be late night`s second fiddle.

But as his own harshest critic, O`Brien realized his image could work to his advantage in the long run. Soon afterwards, Conan began incorporating more self-effacing humor into his monologues and skits. Gradually, the critics came around to comprehend and enjoy his nuanced approach to late night TV, though NBC heads weren`t as understanding.


During Conan`s 1st 3 years, the network held him on a tight leash. NBC continued to renew the show on weekly cycles, until finally by the 1996-1997 season his hard work began paying off. Some of his fiercest critics praised him for the high quality comedy writing he and his writing staff were capable of. Conan`s cerebral takes on lowbrow humor attracted a cult following amongst high school and college students that quickly spread to adults, young and old. That year, the Conan and the other Late Night writers won their 1st Writers` Guild Award for Best Writing in a Comedy/Variety Series. Late Night with Conan O`Brien was the number 1 for its time slot for the 1st time in its history.



Though some of their ideas failed, many more helped to establish them as a comedy show defying the status quo. One of their recurring skits: SAT analogies, distorted the test`s analogies into hilarious relationships between a famous or infamous figure alike, and a word or phrase. Conan usually built many segments around audience members or bit players as audience members and would utilize editing techniques or green screen technology to put them in laughable situations. Their most prominent skit that has never grown wearisome is when they lower a big screen T.V. over the interviewee`s chair with a famous celebrity`s face plastered on it.


The funny part comes when you see that their mouth is clearly cut out with someone else`s in its place who parodies the person to Conan`s frustrations. Conan`s tradition of taking his guests for a drive in his desk-turned-car via a green screen and a steering wheel has always been a time-honored bit. Another skit that lasted well beyond its namesake surprisingly enough was the show`s In the Year 2000 segment. Conan and his famous guest would dress in monastic robes and speak pseudo-prophetically on the future in a riotous light.


From 1997 on, Late Night with Conan O`Brien not only maintained the late late night top tier but became one of the most celebrated programs on network television. Late Night won another 3 Writers` Guild Awards in 2000, 2002, and 2003.  On the show`s 10th anniversary in 2003, Mr. T helped Conan reflect on his first mercurial 10 years. Mr. T had curiously worn a gold chain around his neck with a golden 7 hanging from it. When asked why he was wearing a 7  instead of a 10 to commemorate the moment, Mr. T. replied: I know that, fool but you`ve only been funny for seven!


Conan was snubbed at the Emmy for years until finally in 2007, when he won the coveted crowning achievement for a comedy show. 2008 saw him still able to keep viewers glued to their televisions as his move to the West Coast neared.


This week, Conan is combining best-of clips with interviews and salutes to trademarks of the show that won`t be joining him in La La Land. Some of the kitschy side-splitting members of the Late Night cast that are being honored are the Masturbating Bear, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and Vomiting Kermit. As a token to his studio audience, Conan has been giving away pieces of his set to random members in the stands every night this week. Anyone who`s been watching him ruminate over the clips, and with guests, can see he`s choked up over his farewell from his Late Night seat. How he will bid farewell this coming Friday is undoubtedly one of the hardest questions Conan has ever had to answer to himself.


Of all the things he`ll take, will his frolicking from behind the curtain and square dance introduction accompany him to L.A.? Certainly the invisible strands attached to his pant legs that he`d yank to make himself into a human marionette won`t somehow disappear in his new smoggy confines. But I could go on about the unique physical and outrageous gags Conan as been known for throughout the years. The only thing a true-blooded Conan fanatic can hope for is that he doesn`t fall into the Jay trap and lose whatever entertaining gold made him a loveable nerd for (as Mr. T suggested) the last 13 years.