“The dominant trait of Conan as I know him is the wild chaos and turbulence of the creative and whimsical mind. It is that which must be captured.” That assessment is from Jordan Schlansky, human observer (or observer of humans) and Associate Producer on CONAN when I ask him about how he’d portray his boss, Conan O’Brien, if he was trying to do what I was: recreating a moment from the TBS late-night series’ lore with crafts and toys. It’s a uniquely Schlanskyesque response, but also an answer that inspires a question: How do you recapture the “wild chaos and turbulence of a creative and whimsical mind” with popsicle sticks and paper props?
For many CONAN fans, the challenge of that (and the lure of a fun project) was enough of a driver to contribute to the upcoming DIY CONAN (airing 9/21 on TBS at 11/10 PM Central). An entirely fan-made episode, the special is sure to be filled with crafty and clever twists on selected moments like the classic Shrub Cop or the time Conan confronted Schlansky over his end of the week tardiness only to get a truly memorable tour of his daily routine (the clip I chose to try and re-create). Several hundred fan-made clips were submitted and dozens will be used with methods ranging from stop motion animation, live-action, CG, and ones I can’t even think of as CONAN fans take advantage of an opportunity to shine, create, and pay tribute to their mutually beneficial fandom. It’s something they’ve had the chance to do before, notably crowdsourcing an episode in 2013 under the title Occupy Conan. It’s also something that’s right in line with the ethos of the show and that “creative and whimsical mind” that drives it.
I’ve previously said O’Brien embodied a punk spirit from the start, and there’s a thread that runs across almost 27 years of television and two networks that still connects with that. The silliness and aggressive weirdness of his shows for sure come from a place of necessary inventiveness owing to a shoestring budget and a hanging-by-a-thread existence in those early days. Not to mention a chip on the shoulder that pushed the show to stand out against the competition. All of those things seemingly solidified as a calling card by the time O’Brien became the comedy cool kid’s host of choice. And that’s still the case. Conan still looks and feels a little different from the field and it still takes big creative swings as evidenced by DIY Conan and Conan Without Borders.
From a hand puppet to syncro-vox interviews, and a cavalcade of other sneakily clever but lo-fi creations and bits, the DIY spirit has always been alive with O’Brien’s shows. But DIY isn’t a label rigidly applied to arts and crafts comedy only, it’s a mentality and creative ID that extends to O’Brien’s willingness to make comedy out of what’s available and in reach. Evident when he parachutes into situations and mines the funny from real interactions, be they at a bus depot in Houston, a doll store, the back of a rideshare, South Korea, a van exploring the world of online dating, or in the stupefying company of Jordan Schlansky.
“Even with my explicitly intimate self-knowledge, I’ll always lack the objectivity of the external observer,” Schlansky says when commenting on what it feels like to have people try to reimagine on-screen moments with him and O’Brien. “As I spend my lifetime examining others, in the spirit of balance and symbiosis, I’m always curious to understand how others, in turn, might perceive me,” he adds. When I ask how I can capture his essence, his answer is simply, “exterior stoicism often belies a deep and dynamic psychology within.” Gotcha. For Jordan, I select an 8″ wooden art pose mannequin with doll jeans and paper sunglasses. For Conan, I cheat.
This entire process was utterly and surprisingly messy, requiring me to push past multiple layers of “don’t do that, you’re supposed to be a serious writer” blockades. But chances are high that I want to do something like this again. It involves toys and a part of the brain that most adults don’t get to use that often. It’s play, really. But I swear you find yourself putting a level of care and energy into these creations that surprise you. Because it’s just supposed to be fun and light and a lark and then you want it to be more and better and you’re scouring your action figure collection at 7AM for an alternate shirt for a wood doll because the tropical print one that came with the other doll clothes just won’t do.
I started thinking this would be a very quick and low lift thing, I ended up with an office covered in glue, doll parts, fishing line… sorry, I just got distracted by an errant oat still on my desk. (OATS! Oats, everywhere.) In the middle, I found myself daydreaming about my shot list, staring at my desk/makeshift stage, and stressing that I was going to lose light and not be able to match the thing I’d shot in a stolen moment hours earlier during my workday. Thank goodness the result was only a 2-minute video. Much more and I think the chances are high that I would have been lost to madness or the creation of my own YouTube channel.
Again though, this was fun. I can’t say that enough. I hope you like the end result, but it honestly isn’t about that. Instead, I feel like I found a few minorly original ways to express myself with what I could mine from my mind and my supply run. DIY, punk, whatever you want to call it, but it feels great. Save for the glue gun burn on my finger.
I haven’t seen the DIY Conan episode yet, but I can’t imagine my experience was unique and that fans who participated didn’t get as into it as I did, honoring the absurdity of the act as much as the show that they love while, for just an instant, getting a closer look at the “wild chaos and turbulence of a creative and whimsical mind.”
‘DIY CONAN’ airs 9/21 on TBS at 11/10 PM Central