Conan O’Brien’s First ‘Late Night’ Episode Still Stands Out As Punk Comedy Art

Features Editor
09.14.18 2 Comments

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It’s been one day past 25 years since Conan O’Brien introduced himself to TV audiences, replacing David Letterman as the host of NBC’s Late Night in the 12:30AM timeslot that had been (and which has long continued to be, thanks, in large part, to Conan) an incubator for some of late-night comedy’s most revolutionary and straight up weird ideas. To celebrate that anniversary, O’Brien announced the release of that episode on the Team Coco website while also promising the release of more when a full archive debuts in January. You should go watch it. Not only is it beautifully restored, but it’s a clear demonstration of O’Brien’s guts and a slice of punk comedy that still stands up. Need more info before committing 37 minutes of your life to the adventure? Check out this running commentary on the episode’s standout moments and how they tie to O’Brien’s long and impressive career in late night.

The Cold Open

NBC

No one can say they weren’t given fair warning that Conan’s Late Night wasn’t going to be typical.

News about Conan’s looming arrival was “everywhere” in the 1993 sense of the word — magazines, newspapers, Entertainment Tonight, and the nightly news. Just like we see in the cold open for the first episode. All eyes were on Conan, and because of that, it’s sort of remarkable that he didn’t hide from the mounting public pressure. Instead, he chose to face it head-on with a dark cold open that served as his initial introduction to an already suspect audience — a smart and surprising way to handle a tough situation.

The Monologue And The Introduction To Andy Richter

Part of the appeal of this look back is to see where Conan and Andy Richter were at the start. Naturally, everyone seems a little nervous and a little awkward in this first episode. Thank goodness NBC didn’t make a snap decision and gave the show enough time to gel, but I wonder if the prospect of failure helped drive the creativity of the show as much as it ratcheted up the anxiety. Starting with the first episode, there’s a definite feeling that everyone involved had decided that dying with their spurs on held more appeal than trying to be something counter to what they wanted to be.

Random Bits Of Weirdness Part 1

Conan: “You know what it’s time for?”

Andy: “Are you gonna show us a scar?”

I would pay $35 to know if that line was scripted. It’s such a minuscule and perfectly off-kilter moment designed to please 6% of the audience, Andy Richter, and Conan O’Brien.

Actual Small Town Items

Letterman left a legacy of subversive comedy that (sometimes lovingly, sometimes crankily) tweaked the late night comedy formula that had been established by Johnny Carson and others. When it came time for Conan to get rolling, he offered more of the same, poking at the convention of a “ripped from the headlines” bit (which Letterman and, later, Jay Leno, had done) by concocting fake stories with absurd details that were just obvious enough to count as a wink to the audience.

Variety marked it as a misstep at the time, but it falls right in line with the light anti-establishment tone running through the episode.

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