Today is Coco’s 51st birthday and in honor of UPROXX’s favorite red-headed late night host, I’ve compiled some nuggets from Conan O’Brien’s early days. So, with birthday wishes slightly warmer than Ted Turner’s birthday accolades, here are five facts you might not have known about Conan’s comedy beginnings.
1. Before writing for SNL Conan worked as a warm-up comic for The Wilton North Report. The show was formatted a bit like an early version of The Daily Show, with co-hosts Phil Cowan and Paul Robins giving commentary on the news events of the day and then cutting to faux reports. In addition to doing warm-up for the show, Conan also worked as a writer along with Greg Daniels (King Of The Hill, The Office) before its cancellation after just a month. Fox pushed it as a competitor to Late Night — which of course, Conan would go on to host six years later.
2. NBC had zero confidence in Conan O’Brien as host of Late Night. NBC has never been that supportive of Conan, even before the whole Tonight Show mess they were skeptical of him in his early run on Late Night. In those first days he actually had to sign a new contract every week because executives where doubtful of his success, even cancelling his show for a day because the network wanted to find a replacement. They didn’t find anyone to replace him of course and brought the show back a day later.
3. While writing for The Simpsons, Conan would act out his pitches. Given his reputation for goofiness, it doesn’t seem all that surprising that he would act out his jokes, but as told to Charlie Rose, that wasn’t something that was done by the other writers.
“The way I wrote was to perform for people. I’d say, “What do you think of this skit?” and I’d do it for them. When I went to The Simpsons all the other writers were a little stunned, because I’d play all the parts and do the voices of the Simpsons. I would do Marge’s voice and Homer’s voice and jump around, and they hadn’t seen that before.”
And Conan O’Brien’s favorite episode that he wrote while on The Simpsons: “Marge vs. the Monorail.”
4. He stole a Batman costume from the 1960s television show. While Conan was a student at Harvard, actor Burt Ward visited the school to give a speech about his role as Robin on the Batman TV series. Before the speech began, Conan and a few students approached Ward as security guards who offered to protect the costume and make sure nothing happened to it. During Ward’s speech, a student stood up and asked Ward “When is a costume not a costume? When it’s stolen,” the lights then dimmed and Conan and his accomplices snatched the costume off stage and took photos with it before giving it back to Ward about an hour later.
5. Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel developed Triumph based on the dogs at the Westminster Dog Show. In the early days of Late Night there was a recurring routine where they would have dog puppets do stupid tricks, with Smigel pitching the idea of a dog comedian. As Conan revealed to NPR, the gag just snowballed from there:
“My favorite part about Triumph, and I don’t know why but Triumph has the voice of a Ukrainian woman. …And I have no idea why but apparently this is, you know, an immigrant who made his way to the Borscht Belt and it was funny right away. And then we started – I think initially Triumph just insulted me and then we thought that’s really funny. Let’s bring Triumph back and have him insult celebrities who are sitting next to me.
So after I was done interviewing them I’d say would you like to meet Triumph, the insult comic dog? And then he would start yelling at William Shatner and saying: Look at you, Shatner. What has happened? You’re fat pig, Shatner.”
Here’s one of those early dog puppet sketches with Triumph’s first appearance.