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Early Receptions: The Unpredictable, Yet Predicted, Rise of Conan O’Brien

Just before graduating from Harvard in 1985, Conan O’Brien’s school newspaper asked him what he planned to be doing in ten years.

“I hope you’ll be watching the Conan O’Brien Show,” he replied. It only took him eight years to land that first hosting gig. Now, as O’Brien prepares to end his current nightly stint on TBS and move to an HBO series, let’s look back on how it all began.

NBC was in a bad way in 1993. The network’s primetime lineup sat in third place. David Letterman, burned by losing to Jay Leno in the battle for Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show crown, was jumping ship to CBS. NBC was scrambling for someone to take his place on Late Night.

While NBC denied reports at the time that the network was courting Garry Shandling for the hosting gig, claims surfaced that NBC had confirmed his imminent signing in the form of a fax to affiliates. Yep, a fax. Because the NBC mimeograph was in the shop.

Some reports claim that Shandling’s agent wanted to produce the show, as well as garner partial ownership of Late Night. Meanwhile, Shandling was busy with his HBO series, The Larry Sanders Show, and allegedly wasn’t comfortable with NBC’s suggested timeline to take over Late Night. Shandling is rumored to have walked away from a $20 million offer.

Looking to fill the Late Night seat, executive producer Lorne Michaels turned to a relatively unknown 30-year-old who had written for Saturday Night Live before moving over to The Simpsons, Conan O’Brien.

O’Brien was announced as the new host on an April 1993 episode of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Ironically, Leno would later undercut O’Brien’s time as the host of The Tonight Show after Leno balked at stepping away as host. This resulted in O’Brien being legally prohibited from television appearances after contract and scheduling disputes broke down — as did Conan himself.

Anyway, when asked what he was doing when he first learned that he’d be taking over Late Night duties, O’Brien replied that he was “eating a big sandwich.” I’d like to take a minute to point out just how damn funny this response is.

NBC execs spoke well of O’Brien. NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer told reporters, “He’s unknown, but he has a great deal of charm and wit… Letterman was the voice of the baby-boomers. O’Brien is the voice of the MTV generation.”

This may be largely due to O’Brien’s successful audition before an audience in which he said, “Look, I’ve got this big, fat, meaty Irish head, and in three years it will look really weird, so I’ve got this small window of opportunity to do a late night show.”

The audience ate it up. Oh, if O’Brien only knew how not small — large, even — that window would be.

Despite this buzz, O’Brien was trotted out for another audition, this time in front of an audience of reporters and network bigwigs — two groups known to be bitter and destructive, but also drunk, so O’Brien’s chances weren’t all bad.

The Associated Press reported that O’Brien operated well under pressure and all the media scrutiny. Even despite some photographers calling out “Mr. Replacement” to gain his attention for a snapshot.

Despite these numerous hoops, critics still questioned an unseasoned performer’s chances in the world of late night. Los Angeles Daily News TV critic Phil Rosenthal challenged O’Brien’s role as “voice of a generation,” labeling O’Brien “a guy who got his job because Garry Shandling wouldn’t take it. And now we’re stuck with him.”

Ahead of O’Brien’s debut, New York Daily News critic David Bianculli suggested another young talent he believed to be better suited for Late Night: then host of E!’s Talk Soup, Greg Kinnear.

I want to give David a hard time on this, but real talk, Talk Soup was our YouTube in the ’90s.

O’Brien’s Late Night premiere was prefaced with numerous dress rehearsals and warmups. The Associated Press reported a few anonymous accounts from audience members who were not pleased. Some called him stiff and lacking rapport with guests. During one early sketch, “The Laughing Genie,” Conan is said to have dressed in a turban and manically cackled for a full 60 seconds.

Despite these murmurs, Letterman shared his support for O’Brien’s debut, calling for audiences to tune in if only to get to know the new Late Night host. It definitely wasn’t the last time he’d have O’Brien’s back.

Conan debuted in September, 1993, at 12:35 am. His first slate of guests were John Goodman, Drew Barrymore, and Tony Randall. As an early indication of where things were headed, Conan had an unannounced George Wendt emerge from the crowd and leg wrestle Goodman in a battle of big, burly TV men. This earned kudos from Randall.

Notably, Conan’s first musical guest was Radiohead, and are you kidding me!? Radiohead? Conan O’Brien is on the air for two nights, and he brings on Radiohead.

Here is Radiohead as actual babies performing “Creep.”

Early reviews of O’Brien’s debut were not glowing. Newsday critic Marvin Kitman wrote, “I was expecting nothing, and Conan O’Brien more than fulfilled my minimal expectations. He revealed Monday night a monumentally minuscule talent. A star was not born.”

O’Brien even got in on the action, penning a review of his own premiere in the New York Times. This included the lines, “As much as this writer would like to root for Mr. O’Brien, one can’t help but have grave doubts about his prospects. Despite the considerable power of his raw sexuality and mesmerizing intellectual presence, this Late Night may very well end up the late Late Night.

Despite this bad first impression, Kitman eventually concluded that O’Brien will “undoubtedly grow on us.” He fared far better than fellow new addition to the late-night scene, Chevy Chase, whose exploits are notorious among talk show failures.

Critic Hal Boedeker echoed this sentiment, writing, “If Chevy Chase is the disaster on the new late-night TV landscape, Conan O’Brien is the genuine surprise.”

In the sort of foresight any critic can only pray to possess and share with the world, Boedeker concluded his assessment of O’Brien’s first week on late night by predicting, “He’s not a nobody any longer. He has arrived, and he’s here to stay.”

Almost three decades later, and Boedeker’s still correct. Now if only someone could explain to me the phenomenal success of what I believe is Conan O’Brien’s most watched clip on YouTube: Disturbed covering “The Sound of Silence.” It has more than 123 million views. Its existence and popularity is so absurd and inexplicable that it feels like something Conan thought into being. Enjoy.

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Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

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Written By

Dustin Waters is a writer from Macon, Ga, currently living in D.C. After years as a beat reporter in the Lowcountry, he now focuses his time on historical oddities, trashy movies, and the merits of professional wrestling.

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