There is a lot of late-night lore about Conan O’Brien’s brief ascension to The Tonight Show, his struggles while Jay Leno hosted a primetime talk show airing ahead of Conan’s The Tonight Show, and Conan’s eventual ouster so that NBC could replace O’Brien with the man he replaced. There was a lot of nastiness in that debacle, and a lot of hurt feelings. A “few people were not good human beings,” Conan O’Brien once said about what he called a “clusterf*ck.”
I have heard a lot about the debacle, but one story that somehow seemed to slip by me was the fact that Jeff Zucker — the President and CEO of NBC at the time, who ultimately made the call to fire Conan — also once had Conan arrested. In fact, Nick Offerman mentioned it in a recent episode of In Bed with Nick and Megan while speaking to Rashida Jones who — like Jeff Zucker and Conan O’Brien — attended Harvard (although obviously not at the same time). Offermam mentioned that Conan — who was the head of The National Lampoon — frequently pranked the school newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, which Jeff Zucker ran at the time.
I did some more research into this story, and discovered that there is quite an interesting backstory of pranks to go along with the arrest. The arrest was something of the last straw after O’Brien and The National Lampoon pulled a series of pranks on Zucker, including a fake phone-sex ad with Zucker’s dorm-room phone number; stealing the Crimson’s “prized collection of caricatures of its past presidents” and mailing them to Duluth, Minnesota; and stealing the newspaper’s presidential throne.
But the prank that got O’Brien arrested was when he stole an entire run of the Harvard Crimson daily newspaper. Here’s how The New Yorker captured the incident in 2001:
Early one morning fifteen years ago, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the entire press run of the Harvard Crimson disappeared from the front hall of the newspaper’s offices. Jeff Zucker was the president of the paper at the time, and he vividly remembers his reaction: “I was pissed. I knew it was Conan who had stolen it, of course. So I called the police.”
The Harvard Crimson itself described the incident thusly, in 2004:
“O’Brien cut his teeth in comedy as president of The Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. In fact, O’Brien first met Zucker, his current boss, one day when O’Brien and the Lampoon editors stole all the copies of that morning’s Crimson. Zucker, then Crimson President, called the police and met O’Brien face to face while he was being arrested.”
According to O’Brien, Zucker didn’t forgive him for that until 2005. Conan was fired in 2010, so maybe Zucker didn’t forgive him, after all. In fact, just last year, O’Brien zinged Zucker during an upfront presentation for WarnerMedia, which owns TBS (where Conan works) and CNN (where Zucker is the president). In joking that a movie would be made about AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner, Conan said that “new chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports Jeff Zucker will be played by Mini-Me. Now that’s just good casting! We go way back, he and I.”
They certainly do. Thirty-five years, in fact, and these two just can’t seem to escape from one another’s orbit.