Understanding Conan

He may play the hapless goof, but don't be deceived. After 10 years doing late-night comedy, Conan O'Brien has created a brand of his own.

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / August 31, 2003
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All over Manhattan, New Yorkers are wearily rising from their desks and preparing to head home as the clock ticks past 5:30 on a sweltering summer afternoon. Inside Studio 6A at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, taping of the 1,768th Late Night With Conan O'Brien is just getting underway.

The host is rising from his desk -- all 6 feet 4 inches of him -- to greet Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu, and Drew Barrymore. As the stars of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle sashay onto the stage, O'Brien is at full throttle himself. This is a guy who seems able, night after night, to pump out extra adrenaline and pluck comedy out of thin air. First, to the tune of "Let's Get It On," he dances with the three women as they remove his tie and start to unbutton his shirt. He musses his own hair to heighten the effect. "I think there's an interview in here somewhere; I just don't know where the hell it is," he confesses. Finally seated (with Liu wearing Conan's tie), the actresses all start talking at once, so O'Brien plays off the chaos (and draws big laughs from his mostly young audience of 200) by pretending to be a frazzled, notebook-wielding policeman interviewing the trio as witnesses to an accident.

When they, for no evident reason, start singing a song about "my pretty pony," O'Brien counters with a lusty rendition of the theme song to a kitschy 1980s sitcom, Charles in Charge. As they cut to a commercial, O'Brien is dancing atop his desk, again to "Let's Get It On," while taking off his shirt. It is all inexplicably but irresistibly funny.

A half-hour after the taping ends, O'Brien is still revved up, still looking for a place to put his energy. He moves restlessly about his ninth-floor office, plucking the strings of an unplugged electric guitar while a New York City symphony of honks and sirens drifts up from the street. "Tonight I thought we had a pretty hot show," he says. "I think we gave people something that was really fun. But let's see what we've got tomorrow, you know?"

Conan O'Brien has learned not to take tomorrow for granted. Sure, life is good as he prepares to celebrate his 10th anniversary on the air in September and the birth of his first child a month after that. It may seem that he just arrived on the scene (and at 40, he still looks like everybody's very tall kid brother), but the startling fact is that he has logged more years on late-night TV than Steve Allen or Jack Paar. Even more startling, he has now occupied the post-midnight slot at NBC nearly as long as David Letterman, whose ground-breaking act O'Brien was asked to follow when Letterman jumped to CBS.

Yet O'Brien has the native Bostonian's bone-deep conviction that life is only good if it's also a little bit hard. So even in the afterglow of another show that clicked on all cylinders, he can't help lingering on what he learned from being forced to "crawl through the giant, year-and-a-half-long spanking machine" after his debut in 1993.

"You know the Clint Eastwood movies where they beat the crap out of Clint Eastwood and then hang him but then ride off and forget to kill him?" O'Brien asks. "When he comes back and walks through the flames and everyone's like, 'Omigod, it's him'? It's kind of like, 'Hey, guys, you forgot to kill me, and now I'm back.'" He pauses, smiling. "So the bar gets really quiet when I walk in."

Back then, TV critics pronounced him a disaster, an unworthy successor to Letterman. Tom Shales of The Washington Post called O'Brien "a switch on the guest who won't leave; he's the host who should never have come." In USA Today, Matt Roush said O'Brien was "too clever for his own good, not yet good enough for anyone else's." The Chicago Sun-Times's Lon Grahnke described O'Brien as "nervous, unprepared, and generally geeky." NBC stopped just short of canceling his show but made it clear that O'Brien was living on borrowed time, forcing him to struggle ahead on 13-week contracts.

"All the nonsense I had to go through that was so humiliating at the time," he says. "And then all that nonsense settled down. It took awhile for people to be able to look at this show without all the crazy bias and distortion and white noise. I would have disliked the person who replaced David Letterman. This is a crazy concept, but if I could have separated myself from Conan O'Brien and watched Conan O'Brien come on the air, I would have been angry at him. I would have thought, 'He's not Letterman,' and 'Who does this punk think he is?'"

After one of the most remarkable turnarounds in TV history, who O'Brien is now is simply this: the best late-night comedy host on television.

When Johnny Carson was 40 years old, he had been host of NBC's The Tonight Show for barely four years. When Letterman was 40, he had been host of NBC's Late Night With David Letterman for five years. O'Brien not only has twice that much late-night duty under his belt, but as he hits his stride, he already encompasses much of the important TV comedy history of the past 20 years: as an Emmy-winning writer on Saturday Night Live, as a writer and producer on The Simpsons, and now as the star of and conceptual force behind Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

In other words, having worked on two classic TV shows, O'Brien could well be creating a third. "I feel like I've put a lot of comedy miles on my odometer," he concedes. "I always wanted a body of work; I think I've got a body of work now. I want a body of work much bigger than this, but I'm really happy about that."

Carson, of course, defined the modern late-night talk show. Letterman deconstructed the genre by pioneering what O'Brien calls "the anti-talk show." There was room for someone who blended elements of Johnny and Dave while creating something new. Enter Conan O'Brien.

From awkward beginnings, he has evolved into a highly skilled wordsmith-farceur, a dare-to-be-silly impresario of comic disorder who night after night cooks up a strange postmodern mix that shouldn't work but somehow does. Among the late-night hosts working today, O'Brien boasts the most agile comic mind, the quickest-on-the-feet interviewing style, the cleverest writers, and the most original blend of verbal and physical comedy. He is the most versatile sketch performer of the late-night cadre, and he brings a sheer likability to the mix that is crucial for longevity in television's midnight hour.

Part of that likability stems from the fact that O'Brien relentlessly jokes about himself, talking, for instance, about his "Bob's Big Boy hairdo" of "high-density polymer." Part of it is that, unlike, say, Dennis Miller, O'Brien does not hit the audience over the head with his erudition.

Off the air, he will gladly revisit his college thesis on "literary progeria" in the works of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor (namely, that the world-weary, prematurely aged children in their fiction are metaphors for a South made "wise before its time" by the twin humiliations of poverty and defeat in the Civil War). But on the air, O'Brien prefers to slip a highbrow reference into a lowbrow joke, as with this recent sally: "It was reported that astrophysicist Stephen Hawking recently visited a London strip club. While at the strip club, Hawking was overheard saying, 'Hey, the universe isn't the only thing that's expanding.'"

For all the influences and echoes in his work, O'Brien is an original, and like all originals, he is creating his own category. He takes the persona of hapless schlemiel and wraps it in a layer of self-aware irony that goofs on the very idea of stardom, of television itself -- and that, in turn, is wrapped in a layer of happy-to-be-here ingenuousness, both because O'Brien knows the limits of irony and because he is happy to be here.

O'Brien uses his monologues and sketches to bridge the gap between the one-liner and the knockabout farce, marrying his writer's sensibility with his love of physical comedy to create a show in which, in his words, "anything can come to life at any time." That means comedy that is both silly and smart, sophomoric and Pirandellian, as when O'Brien observes on this night that some paper currency in Europe recently tested positive for cocaine. "As a result, the euro is not only stronger than the dollar but also louder and more obnoxious."

Then there is the night when O'Brien tells a studio audience that it is the only one he has ever cared for, only to have ostensible members of the previous night's audience (played by actors) storm into the studio in a jealous rage. Then the two audiences compare notes about O'Brien's blandishments and betrayals, only to have O'Brien coyly suggest a three-way. Outraged, the actors take turns slapping his face until one concedes that, hey, a three-way sounds like fun, and they converge on him.

When you go on the air at 12:35 a.m., you can push the envelope in that way. It doesn't hurt that O'Brien wears such a cheerful, unthreatening face. "You can be much more subversive when there's an innocent exterior," he observes slyly. O'Brien's crazed repertory company includes such wholesome figures as Masturbating Bear, Coked-Up Werewolf, Pimpbot, and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a scabrous puppet voiced by writer Robert Smigel who finds everyone and everything on the planet fit only for him to "poop on." The show's staples also include "If They Mated," which morphs the photos of celebrity couples to create grotesque depictions of what their offspring might look like, and the "Clutch Cargo" routines, featuring still photos of figures like Bill Clinton and President Bush, in which Smigel provides the moving lips and puts outrageous words in their mouths.

During interviews with celebrities, O'Brien is sometimes the wise guy (after Sylvester Stallone told him he planned to make yet another Rocky movie, O'Brien cracked, "I heard there's a rumor you're fighting Wilford Brimley in this one") but sometimes plays the oblivious dork trying, vainly, to be cool. He models that stance on Woody Allen, early Bob Hope, and Peter Sellers's Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies that his father took him to during his childhood in Brookline.

"I fell in love with the character of the self-important, deluded fool," says O'Brien. "So when I do my show now, I'll tap into him sometimes." When an appearance by handsome actor Brendan Fraser prompted screams from female spectators, O'Brien admonished them: "Please, ladies, I'm here all night."

Unlike Letterman, who maintains a detached distance from comedy sketches even when he's performing in them, O'Brien throws himself headlong into every bit. But sometimes he generates comedy out of nothing more than random effusions from his id. So he will suddenly skitter away from the camera during a monologue (he has instructed his cameraman not to follow him when he does this) and then suddenly reappear on-screen, his face plastered on the lens. He began interacting much more with the audience after ace sidekick Andy Richter left the show in the year 2000 -- by coincidence, the title of the duo's best-known comedy sketch.

O'Brien can be funny without saying a word. When he hosted the Emmy Awards last year, he pantomimed an all-out flirtation with Jennifer Aniston, then a fearful retreat when he spied her husband, Brad Pitt, in the next seat, then the swooning discovery of true love with . . . Garry Shandling. That was followed by a taped segment showing O'Brien and Shandling riding a horse together along a beach.

He will use current events and political leaders, but only by boiling them down to their absurdist essence. O'Brien does a merciless imitation of President Bush with head-swiveling "huh?"s and fondly recalls how the show "turned President Clinton into Foghorn Leghorn" with bits depicting him as a randy hillbilly. But he doesn't make political humor a focus of his show. "It's just not my thing," he shrugs. "It's just not how I'm funny, getting it off my chest how angry I am at the Office of Management and Budget."

If you strip away all the layers and layers and layers," O'Brien says, "the core of what I do is in the kitchen at Sunday lunch in my house in Brookline when I was a kid."

He is talking about growing up as the third of six children in a family in which a premium was placed on wit and achievement. The O'Briens were, and are, a tightknit clan. His parents tape every episode of his show; O'Brien talks to them a couple of times a week and often sees his brothers and sisters (Neil, Luke, Kate, Jane, and Justin). Thomas O'Brien, his father, is a specialist in infectious diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and Ruth O'Brien, his mother, was a partner at the Ropes & Gray law firm before her retirement.

At a party after O'Brien's debut on September 13, 1993, executive producer Lorne Michaels told Ruth O'Brien that he selected her son to succeed Letterman because she had raised Conan to have "a fundamental politeness" -- a quality Michaels believed was essential to staying power on late-night TV. "And my mother's never let me forget it," chuckles O'Brien.

He also learned humor at home. Simple Darwinian logic dictated that with four boys and two girls vying for the attention of two busy parents, standing out from the crowd would be a challenge. "My brothers and sisters are really funny," O'Brien says, "and my mom and my dad are really funny, and it was: 'Can you be the funniest person?' To this day, that still can be the toughest room. . . . There's no guarantee who's going to say the funniest thing."

He adds: "If there are six of you, and you're Irish Catholic, and you came one year after the other, and you all kind of look the same, and your parents both work, so you feel you might get lost in the shuffle, you're flexing that [humor] muscle really hard all the time just to have a presence in the family. Just to get a baloney sandwich, you're shucking and jiving."

His comedy gift revealed itself early in the droll commentary he would offer on TV programs. Recalls Luke O'Brien: "He's 6 years old, watching Gilligan's Island or Get Smart or Rocky and Bullwinkle, and he's got this sense of ironic detachment from them that you wouldn't expect from a 6-year-old kid."

Conan O'Brien learned how to work a bigger comedy room in third grade. To test her students' powers of observation, the teacher would rearrange a globe or window shade each day and ask them what was different. One day, she turned and asked: "Conan, what's different today?" He replied, "Well, the first thing, Eddie Hunter didn't jump on me today." The class howled, and young Conan, listening to the laughter, thought to himself: "That felt really gooood."

But it wasn't until he reached Brookline High School, all arms and legs and freckles and red hair, that he began to see comedy as a bit of a social necessity. "I wasn't a stellar athlete, and the ladies weren't beating a path to my door," he says. "I figured out very early on that, hey, this comedy thing, that's my hook."

The subject prompts a digression that fast-forwards to the present while not letting go of the past -- that place he calls "that furnace of insecurity."

"I think sometimes people get confused. They look at me and they think: 'Oh, he's not a bad-looking guy, and he's got a talk show, and he's witty.' [But] if your core personality is formed by time that you're 5 years old or 8 years old, it doesn't matter what happens, you know? I could have a lot of surgery right now and look like Brad Pitt, [but] I will never be that supercool, confident [guy]. I just won't, because I didn't grow up with that. The insecurity and the defense mechanisms are downloaded pretty early.

"I've had people tell me, 'You shouldn't be self-deprecating anymore, 'cause your show's this big hit, and you've lasted, and you're sort of part of the fabric,' and I think 'What are you talking about? How would that change anything?' You'd need a time machine and massive amounts of antidepressants, you know, to be administered in 1964, to change anything." He is half-joking now, succumbing to his one-liner impulse but also making the point that his on-air insecurity is not entirely an act. "I could win an Oscar tomorrow, but my nature is my nature. I'm still going to feel a tad ridiculous being famous."

For all his comic gifts, he was no class clown in high school. Coming from a high-achieving family that instilled a strong work ethic, he studied hard, became an editorial writer on the Sagamore, a Brookline High School newspaper, and was selected to give the welcoming address at graduation. "So much of my early life is trying to be a straight-and-narrow successful guy," he says. "I mean, really trying. I thought, well, I should be a lawyer and a statesman."

The urge to make 'em laugh could not be stilled, however. The Sagamore published an annual April Fools' issue, and O'Brien wrote a humor piece for it, and then another, and then another. When he got to Harvard in 1981, his roommate suggested they check out the Lampoon -- an idea that had not occurred to him (he was eyeing the Crimson instead). O'Brien wrote several humor pieces for Lampoon editors, who were so impressed that they named him the only freshman writer chosen that year.

"When you go to a big school, especially a place like Harvard where everybody's a genius at something, I was, again, insecure," O'Brien says. "I came from this public high school, I really didn't know where I fit in. And suddenly, people were pointing me out as 'Oh, yeah, that's the guy that got on the Lampoon freshman year. They didn't take anybody else, and they took him.' Again, I just thought: This is it." (By the time he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in American history in 1985, O'Brien had twice been elected president of the Lampoon.)

At the magazine, O'Brien realized he could make a living as a comedy writer. So after college, he teamed with fellow Harvard grad Greg Daniels and headed to Hollywood. They lived in a run-down neighborhood and shared a beat-up old car. O'Brien took an improv class where he met a struggling young actress named Lisa Kudrow; he and the Friends actress remain pals to this day.

O'Brien and Daniels worked for a couple of years as writers on HBO's satirical Not Necessarily the News, then landed work on a short-lived late-night comedy show on Fox called The Wilton North Report. It was there, Daniels says, that O'Brien began creating pretaped comedy pieces (or "remotes") that presaged the ones he now uses on his own show. One featured a Native American actor named Iron Eyes Cody who had become famous in the 1970s for shedding a tear during an anti-litter commercial.

"Conan had this very funny bit where Iron Eyes Cody was doing movie reviews," recalls Daniels. "You'd see a shot from a Barbra Streisand movie, and Iron Eyes Cody would exit the movie theater and would turn toward the camera, and you'd see a single tear trickling down his cheek."

Then, in 1988, O'Brien caught a huge, career-defining break: Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels hired him as a writer. It was a golden era at SNL, with cast members including Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz and the incomparable Phil Hartman. O'Brien was agog.

"It was big-time television in the classic sense," he recalls. "It was Rockefeller Center, big bands, studio audience, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, the biggest stars in the world, musical legends, costumes, an army of people building sets."

O'Brien soon made his mark. "Conan had his own character, and he was lightning-fast at grabbing a joke out of the air," says Daniels, who was also a writer on the show at that time. In The Late Shift, a 1994 book by New York Times reporter Bill Carter about the battle between Letterman and Jay Leno for the Tonight chair, Carter wrote that O'Brien was best known at SNL for "co-writing a sketch about a nude beach that dropped in the word 'penis' 50 or 60 times -- a sketch that put SNL back in the news again for its outrageousness."

Under a decree from Michaels, writers were responsible for the production aspects of the sketches they wrote. While he was learning the skills of a producer himself on SNL, O'Brien discovered that he loved performing. He began requesting and receiving roles as an extra in SNL sketches. He glows at the memory of being backstage "with a line to say on live television." As in third grade, it felt gooood.

But then there had always been a performer inside O'Brien, struggling to get out. "The life of a writer is more sedentary than the life of a performer," Daniels says. "Sometimes he had to swallow some of [his] excess energy so he could be a writer."

After three years at SNL, O'Brien left to make a pilot for NBC with Robert Smigel. Called Lookwell, it starred Batman's Adam West and was, in Luke O'Brien's view, "the funniest thing [Conan] ever did." But the network decided not to put it on the fall schedule. However, O'Brien's reputation for originality was spreading, and soon another big break was at hand: In 1991, he was hired for the writing staff of a landmark TV comedy, The Simpsons.

"I felt like the all-star basketball team had finally decided to let someone else in, and I got to play with them," O'Brien recalls. "I had a huge anxiety attack the first day. They sent me off to write a script, and I just thought, I'm not going to be able to do this; I shouldn't be here; I'm not funny enough to be with these people."

But his "cartoonish sense of humor" carried him through, and he eventually went on to write some of the best-known episodes of The Simpsons, including "Whacking Day" and "Springfield Gets a Monorail." In the writers' room, O'Brien satisfied his yen to perform with impromptu bits for the amusement of his colleagues. "A lot of the stuff he does on his show is little scraps he would do to amuse writers on other shows," notes Daniels.

Much as O'Brien treasured his time on The Simpsons, though, it was still an animated series -- "a comedy lab," in O'Brien's view -- that "isolates one muscle." O'Brien had other muscles he wanted to use; he missed the wild and woolly atmosphere of SNL, its backstage teeming with costumed actors and a performance structure blending sketch comedy, stand-up monologues, short films, musical performances, and the all-important element of unpredictability.

At each step of the way -- from the Lampoon to SNL to The Simpsons, O'Brien had picked up ideas about the ingredients for a good comedy show. Soon enough, he would get a chance to cook up one of his own.

Conan O'Brien's nonstop buoyancy on the air -- he is like a cork bobbing on a sea of his own making -- conceals the fact that his workday begins long before the cameras roll and his guests drop in.

Most mornings, O'Brien leaves his apartment on the Upper West Side and goes for a bike ride or to a gym for a quick workout. (He usually does not stay up late to watch his show.) He arrives at 30 Rockefeller Plaza at midmorning, and the first order of business is to talk to executive producer Jeff Ross, head writer Mike Sweeney, and some of the show's other 12 writers. After those meetings, O'Brien confers with segment producers to discuss the interviews with that night's guests.

O'Brien may be the boss, but he keeps it loose. "He's really funny around the office," says Sweeney. "He loves performing for us."

Still, O'Brien is something of a perfectionist. Rehearsal begins around 2 p.m., and that is where O'Brien really puts his stamp on the show: suggesting alternate endings for comedy sketches, adding or dropping jokes, generally fixing bits that don't quite work. "He gets involved in everything," says Ross. "This isn't a guy who walks in at 4 o'clock and just reads the cue cards and then goes home."

That's because, however much O'Brien tends to improvise, he still sees the show's prepared structure as vital. "Ideally, a good late-night show is building a jungle gym for the host to swing on," he says. "You know what I mean? Building a nice structure beforehand so that I can swing and jump and flip around and do my thing, and people just enjoy that."

During rehearsals, he can be blunt in his critiques of sketches that don't work, but having been a writer for so long himself, he makes his points with humor. "He'll rip something to shreds in a way that you're laughing as you're being eviscerated," says Sweeney. "I feel like he really loves writers. He totally understands where everyone is coming from . . . He knows we're like trapped animals that have to produce."

And do they ever. O'Brien has adopted Michaels's SNL policy and requires writers to produce the sketches they write, viewing it as a way to engender both autonomy and accountability. So the writers cast the actors for the pieces they write, arrange for sets and wardrobe, go out in the field with a cameraman to shoot the pieces, and edit them. The need to generate comic ideas is endless. "This thing is The Beast," says O'Brien. "This Beast eats ideas at an incredible rate."

A short time before the audience warm-up, O'Brien meets with his writers again and chooses four or five jokes for his monologue. The pace throughout the day is hectic. "There are hairy days," admits Sweeney. "There are days when they're loading the audience [into the studio], and we're in Conan's dressing room, frantically rewriting."

By 5:15 p.m., O'Brien is already flexing those comedy muscles as hard as he can, entertaining the audience as part of the show's warm-up. On this day in late June, he bounds out from the wings and begins gyrating maniacally near the front row while the Max Weinberg Seven, his house band, sends music surging through the studio. O'Brien demands that a male spectator also get up and dance, then orders the guy to hug a man across the aisle, then kids him for the enthusiasm with which the hug is given.

Then he switches to his leering-Lothario mode as he pretends to put the moves on Lisa DeDapper, 46, of Boise, Idaho. There is no spirit of mockery at work, but rather a sense that O'Brien has enlisted them all as supporting players -- as he later would with guest star Cameron Diaz et al. -- in his TV theater of the absurd. (In fact, after announcing that "Coney never rides alone," O'Brien will make DeDapper his passenger in an on-air "Desk Drive" piece.)

After about 10 minutes, O'Brien leaves and goes backstage. A few minutes later, the Max Weinberg Seven swings into Late Night's hard-charging theme song. It's showtime.

So what's next for this improbable star of late night? In his personal life, the answer is clear-cut. He and his wife, 32-year-old Liza Powell, are expecting their first child in October. O'Brien met Powell, then a copywriter at a New York ad agency, when she appeared on his show in a sketch about advertising three years ago. Not surprisingly, she possesses a ready wit herself. "They clearly both find the other one hilarious," says Luke O'Brien. Powell is pursuing a master's degree in creative writing.

In O'Brien's professional life, though, the question of what's next is a bit more complicated. Sure, certain short-term goals suggest themselves. On September 21, for the first time, Late Night With Conan O'Brien will be among the nominees vying for an Emmy Award in the category of outstanding variety, music, or comedy series. A 10th-anniversary special is also scheduled for September 14 at 9:30 p.m. on NBC. He consistently wins the ratings contest in his 12:35 a.m. time slot, drawing more than 2.6 million viewers, and has built a wider audience by agreeing to a deal in which the cable channel Comedy Central airs reruns of his show at 6 p.m.

However, the choicest real estate on late night -- the 11:30 time slots -- will be denied him indefinitely. Those slots are still locked down by Leno on NBC and Letterman on CBS. There were reports last year that the Fox network was prepared to offer O'Brien an earlier time slot (and open up its checkbook to the tune of $15 million plus) to woo O'Brien away from NBC, but the peacock network moved to sign him to a four-year contract that reportedly pays him nearly $8 million a year. In an appearance before TV critics in late July, O'Brien acknowledged the obvious: that he would be interested in the 11:30 slot if Leno, now 53, ever decides to move on. But there are no signs that is imminent.

Yet even if he never airs at a time when more of America is awake, O'Brien has come so far so fast that he is now playing for posterity. The big "next" for him is to be ranked along with Johnny and Dave as one of the best ever in the field of late-night comedy. It could be argued that he already belongs there. "He has earned a place up there in the late-night pantheon with the best of them," says Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

However, if you ask O'Brien what status he would like to occupy at the end of his next 10 years, he says nothing about pantheons. Instead, he harks back to a day in Los Angeles when he was 23 years old and sitting in a diner, broke, unemployed, and depressed.

"I'm trying to make my meal last as long as possible because I have nothing to do," he recalls of that day. "And I remember just, almost like a prayer, saying to myself: 'I don't care what happens to me as long as it's interesting. . . . Please, God, whatever happens to me, let it be interesting.' And my dream came true. I don't know who's had more interesting experiences than I've had. As crazy as it's been, and as ass-backward as I got into this show, and all the insanity, I look around sometimes, and I think, well, it's a pretty amazing story.

"If 10 years from now -- I don't have to be on the cover of People magazine or be acknowledged funniest man in America -- just as long as it could continue to be this interesting and weird and challenging, that would be a pretty amazing thing."

The clock is ticking past 9:30 p.m. He says goodbye and heads into yet another meeting with his writers. Show number 1,769 awaits. There will be a tomorrow for Conan O'Brien, and The Beast needs to be fed.

Don Aucoin is a member of the Globe Staff.