The War for Late Night

The War for Late Night by Bill Carter

Book: The War for Late Night by Bill Carter Read Free Book Online
Authors: Bill Carter
got paid for doing this kind of thing? You could make a career out of this?
    The following year O’Brien was elected “president” (anywhere else, editor) of the magazine, an unusual honor for a sophomore. That led to the even more unusual honor of holding the position for two years. (It was only the second time in the magazine’s then-century-old history that that had occurred, and the first to hold that distinction was Robert Benchley.) His funny credentials assured, Conan began, at editorial meetings, to unleash his highly energized, spontaneous, almost Dadaist comedy, hurling himself around the room, doing almost anything to make his colleagues laugh—which they did, a lot.
    His pals began to tell him he should save some of this material for when he had his show. His show —that sounded right. An inveterate doodler, he had already created the self-caricature—outline of features, dots for freckles, big swoosh of hair—that would later become his signature. When he passed the information kiosks that dotted the Harvard campus, he would quickly sketch the little Conan head and have it saying some nonsense words like “Jub, Jub.” When people would ask him what he was doing, he would say, “It’s a promotion—for my show.”
    It was all talk. When offered his first real on-campus performing gig—a chance to emcee the annual concert of the Radcliffe Pitches, an a cappella group that traditionally invited the Lampoon president to do the opening jokes for its show—Conan had to choke down raw panic before saying, with manufactured panache, “Yes, I’ll do it!”
    He went out and bought blue index cards and started writing jokes. He acquired a white yachting cap and a big cigar. And—even paler than usual from the surging fear—he set off for his stage debut. As he sat upstairs in the big Sanders Theatre, going over his cards, praying he knew what would make these people laugh, Conan could hear the crowd below, thump-thump-thumping their feet in anticipation. He realized he had arrived at the most frightening moment of his life and found himself frozen in his chair.
    A stagehand finally came to nudge him: “You gotta get out there.” So Conan O’Brien sucked in some air, stuck on his yachting cap, picked up his cigar, and galumphed those big legs out onto the stage.
    He got laughs—genuine, honest laughs. The sound wafted up from the audience and enveloped him, embraced him, cocoonlike—or maybe like the ring of smoke in an opium den. O’Brien had never used drugs and never would. But this? This was the same thing; this was cocaine.
    The week of graduation, the Crimson —now edited by a kid named Zucker—ran a series of profiles of some of the departing seniors. Conan had his own framed and hung in his boyhood room back in Brookline (where it would remain, always). It identified OʹBrien—even with his American lit and history double major, and his thesis on “literary progeria” in the works of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner—as the “preeminent jokester” of the class of ’85. The profile ended with a quote from Conan, answering the question “What do you want to be doing twenty years from now?”
    “I want to be hosting my own show,” O’Brien replied, “and hawking my own line of designer jeans.”
    Conan Christopher O’Brien was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on April 18, 1963, third in a brood of six, the children of Thomas O’Brien and Ruth Reardon O’Brien—a family so deeply Irish they might as well have lived in a bog.
    But they didn’t; they lived in a big, rambling, comfortable home in a lovely neighborhood, a product of conspicuous professional success. Dad was a prominent physician, a specialist in immunology, who eventually would wind up teaching at Harvard Medical School. If anything, Mom’s record of achievement was even more impressive. A scholarship student at Vassar, she graduated from Yale Law School (after turning down Harvard Law), worked on the

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