Decoding Conan O’Brien

conan_o_brienComic talent: what’s it made of?  A new profile by Lynn Hirschberg gives us an X-ray of soon-to-be “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien at work, and the results are fascinating. 

Hirschberg on O’Brien’s comedy strategy:

O’Brien’s approach to comedy and television is analytical and exact. There’s a split in his psyche: he can be goofy, but he obsesses over the nuances of that goofiness. He’s constantly trying to puzzle out how best to be funny five nights a week for an audience of millions.

O’Brien on his background (ignition, anyone?):

“Everybody laughed at Carson – they all watched him. I started analyzing the show then. Since I was a teenager, I have been thinking about what’s funny and what’s not funny almost all the time. Not much in my life has changed since I was a kid…. My older brothers, Neal and Luke, slept in twin beds, and I was in a cot at the foot of their beds. I loved it. When you’re Irish Catholic, you learn to do comedy at the foot of your brothers’ beds. It’s all about trying to make your family laugh. And I employ the same muscle today. It’s just that now I make a living out of it.”

On his persistent, slow improvement after he landed his first hosting job at “Late Night” (which was rocky at first, to say the least):

 One key to O’Brien’s character is his quiet confidence that if he applies himself, he will eventually succeed. He’s not arrogant, but he’s willing to live and breathe the show. “…I’m addicted to the feeling of what it’s like to do a good show. There are 35 variables every night – what comedy do we have? What’s the audience like? Who are the guests? What time of year is it? What’s my mood? You need 15 cherries to line up to pay out the jackpot. And, every now and then, the stars align. And you keep chasing after that feeling.”

On his (deep) practice:

[O’Brien] walked over to an X that had been taped to the floor. When the show starts, that will be where he’ll stand when he emerges from the curtain to address the audience. “I come here at night, after everyone’s gone home, and I practice giving the monologue,” he said. “Every night. For hours. I just stand on the X and imagine the rest.”

Anybody read Steve Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up? It’s virtually the same story–and more revealingly, the same underlying process.