When he’s on television — which is a lot over the last quarter century — Conan O’Brien tends to be upbeat. He’s weird but he’s rarely too “edgy,” much less dark or morbid. So when the longtime late night host and Simpsons writing staff alum did a recent interview for The New York Times, it was a little surprising to read him waxing poetic about cosmic insignificance and how all of us, even the guy who wrote “Marge vs. the Monorail,” will one day be forgotten.
O’Brien was talking about his forthcoming new show, called simply Conan, and which runs a mere half-hour. NYT‘s Dave Itzkoff noted that that’s half the length of a normal O’Brien program, and that got his subject thinking about how life is about decay and we all wither away until we’re just dust in the wind.
“This is going to sound grim,” he said, “but eventually, all our graves go unattended.”
“You’re right, that does sound grim,” replied Itzkoff, which only encouraged O’Brien to elaborate.
“Calvin Coolidge was a pretty popular president. I’ve been to his grave in Vermont. It has the presidential seal on it. Nobody was there,” O’Brien said, before realizing he should probably make a joke so we know he hasn’t become a pod person. “And by the way, I’m the only late-night host that has been to Calvin Coolidge’s grave. I think that’s what separates me from the other hosts.”
O’Brien then talked about speaking to the great Albert Brooks, who incidentally just lost his brother, the also great Bob Einstein.
“When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] ‘What are you talking about? None of it matters.’ None of it matters? ‘No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.’ It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.”
O’Brien’s stark words — plus the notion that fame and fortune do not render one immune to existential dread — left some fans depressed, even worried. Others responded as O’Brien did: with awe and a perverse sense of calm at the idea that we ultimately don’t matter except in the present, if that.
Perhaps we should have seen this darker side of O’Brien back in the day: The first movie he ever appeared in — of not many, and in which he usually plays himself — was 2001’s Storytelling, one of the more particularly depressing movies by Welcome to the Dollhouse auteur (and sometime Conan guest) Todd Solondz. O’Brien contains multitudes, just as we are all star dust and will one day fade into the ether, not so much forgotten as never been.