This article was originally published for the 25th anniversary of the first episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Dates have been updated for the 30th anniversary.
It’s been 30 years since Conan O’Brien introduced himself to TV audiences, replacing David Letterman as the host of NBC’s Late Night in the 12:30AM timeslot that had been (and which has long continued to be, thanks, in large part, to Conan) an incubator for some of late-night comedy’s most revolutionary and straight up weird ideas. To celebrate that anniversary, O’Brien announced the release of that episode on the Team Coco website while also promising the release of more when a full archive debuts in January. You should go watch it. Not only is it beautifully restored, but it’s a clear demonstration of O’Brien’s guts and a slice of punk comedy that still stands up. Need more info before committing 37 minutes of your life to the adventure? Check out this running commentary on the episode’s standout moments and how they tie to O’Brien’s long and impressive career in late night.
The Cold Open
No one can say they weren’t given fair warning that Conan’s Late Night wasn’t going to be typical.
News about Conan’s looming arrival was “everywhere” in the 1993 sense of the word — magazines, newspapers, Entertainment Tonight, and the nightly news. Just like we see in the cold open for the first episode. All eyes were on Conan, and because of that, it’s sort of remarkable that he didn’t hide from the mounting public pressure. Instead, he chose to face it head-on with a dark cold open that served as his initial introduction to an already suspect audience — a smart and surprising way to handle a tough situation.
The Monologue And The Introduction To Andy Richter
Part of the appeal of this look back is to see where Conan and Andy Richter were at the start. Naturally, everyone seems a little nervous and a little awkward in this first episode. Thank goodness NBC didn’t make a snap decision and gave the show enough time to gel, but I wonder if the prospect of failure helped drive the creativity of the show as much as it ratcheted up the anxiety. Starting with the first episode, there’s a definite feeling that everyone involved had decided that dying with their spurs on held more appeal than trying to be something counter to what they wanted to be.
Random Bits Of Weirdness Part 1
Conan: “You know what it’s time for?”
Andy: “Are you gonna show us a scar?”
I would pay $35 to know if that line was scripted. It’s such a minuscule and perfectly off-kilter moment designed to please 6% of the audience, Andy Richter, and Conan O’Brien.
Actual Small Town Items
Letterman left a legacy of subversive comedy that (sometimes lovingly, sometimes crankily) tweaked the late night comedy formula that had been established by Johnny Carson and others. When it came time for Conan to get rolling, he offered more of the same, poking at the convention of a “ripped from the headlines” bit (which Letterman and, later, Jay Leno, had done) by concocting fake stories with absurd details that were just obvious enough to count as a wink to the audience.
Variety marked it as a misstep at the time, but it falls right in line with the light anti-establishment tone running through the episode.
John Goodman Wins The Prize Of Being The First Guest
John Goodman came out to great (fake) fanfare and was later invited to leg wrestle George Wendt. I’m not sure how those things landed at the time (I was 11 when I first saw it, and while I’m sure I laughed, I wasn’t a hard audience) but it’s easy to appreciate the absurdity and acknowledge how the overall interview fit into the puzzle Conan and company were building.
At its heart, this is an alt-late night comedy episode (show, really) wearing the pelt of a lucrative franchise over its shoulders. If someone were to describe this collection of asides, anti-interviews, and random bits without context I would assume they were talking up a brand new episode of The Eric Andre Show.
Random Bits Of Weirdness Part 2
Another slice of absurdity. This GIF really captures the greatness of this bit, so I don’t want to talk it to death, but I’ll say that this is another poke at convention in the form of a Later plug for a fake interview with the surviving cast of The Wizard Of Oz.
An Important Message On Creativity No Matter How It Was Intended
Following an interview with Drew Barrymore about playing Amy Fisher (1993!) and tattoos, Conan spoke with former Odd Couple star Tony Randall, who offered a few backhanded compliments before Conan defended himself, saying, “It amuses me!” Randall then offered a take on art and going with one’s gut, though there is some question as to the intent.
“When you pander to your audience, that’s no good. […] No, not even a little. You must stick by your conscience, your artistic conscience. Such as it were.”
Variety said it was delivered by Randall in “mock affirmation,” but I think that was a cynical way of looking at it. To me, it’s an inspirational message delivered in good faith and also one worth highlighting while looking back on this episode and all that O’Brien has done in the years since.
It is an incredible feat of strength to survive in the pop culture churn for as long as Conan has. He’s doubtlessly done that with the power of a dextrous ever-curious mind and the uncommon ability to suppress ego and let other people have a share of the stage (think of the writers, bit players, and guests that have been given a chance to shine on his three shows). I could also go on about Conan’s willingness to grow and change — from leg wrestling to a pimp bot, old time-baseball, and using his show to re-focus a conversation on the people and stories of Haiti while fighting ugly generalizations. It’s the kind of expansive arc no one in late night history can claim. But above all else, it feels like Conan’s career has been guided by a coincidental adherence to the rules Randall laid out in this first episode. Conan isn’t the kind to pander. He knows what’s funny to him and what’s good, even as he’s grown and those things have changed. It’s as impressive as…
Random Bits Of Weirdness Part 3
Stop reading and go watch the first episode of Late Night With Conan O’Brien all the way to the end to see Conan and Randall sing a rendition of “Edelweiss” from The Sound Of Music while nuns, soldiers, and John Goodman, and Drew Barrymore cry. Why? Because a scared kid with little job security thought it’d be funny. And it really was (and still is).