O'Brien's show originated as a replacement for Late Night with David Letterman. For the first seven years of the show, Andy Richter served as O'Brien's comedy sidekick, but since then O'Brien has been the show's sole featured performer. The show's house band is The Max Weinberg 7, led by drummer Max Weinberg.
O'Brien is currently scheduled to leave Late Night in 2009 to replace Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. On April 24, 2008, it was reported that Jimmy Fallon has been selected to replace O'Brien in 2009. Fallon selected Lorne Michaels, from SNL, as producer. Fallon must still select a band for the show.
It was announced on July 21, 2008 that Jay Leno will host his final episode of The Tonight Show on Friday, May 29, 2009 while Conan will take over the following Monday, on June 1, 2009.
NBC was faced with an unexpected need to replace not just Letterman, but Late Night itself. They still owned the name, but needed to essentially build a new show from scratch. The show was first offered to Dana Carvey and Garry Shandling, who both turned it down. Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels was brought in to develop the new show and auditions were held for the host. Comedians Jon Stewart, Drew Carey, and Paul Provenza auditioned. Michaels had suggested to O'Brien, a then-unknown comedy writer for The Simpsons and former writer for Saturday Night Live, that he should audition for the job, which he did on April 13, 1993. His guests were Jason Alexander and Mimi Rogers. O'Brien was offered the show on April 26, 1993.
O'Brien's Late Night was rushed into production and debuted on September 13, 1993, with Andy Richter as O'Brien's sidekick. The premiere episode featured John Goodman (who received a "First Guest" medal for his appearance), Drew Barrymore, and Tony Randall. The episode featured a cold open of O'Brien's walk to the studio with constant reminders that he was expected to live up to Letterman, parodying a popular sentiment expressed in the media at the time. After seeming to be unaffected by the comments, O'Brien arrives at his dressing room and cheerfully prepares to hang himself. However, a warning that the show is about to start causes him to abandon his plans.
O'Brien's on-camera inexperience showed and the show's first three years were generally considered mediocre. O'Brien, an unknown, was constantly at risk of being fired: NBC had him renewing short-term contracts, thirteen weeks at a time. He was reportedly on the brink of being fired at least once in this period, but NBC had no one to replace him. The show, and O'Brien, slowly improved through experience, and the show's ratings gradually increased to a level which allowed O'Brien to secure a longer contract, and not have to worry about cancellation.
In 2000, Richter left Late Night to pursue his acting career. The show's comedy bits and banter had usually depended on O'Brien's interaction with Richter. O'Brien's wacky non sequitur comedy became more pronounced as he played all of his comedy and commentary directly to the audience instead of towards Richter.
Ratings and reviews continued to improve for Late Night and in 2002, when time came to renew his contract, O'Brien had notable offers from other networks to defect. O'Brien decided to re-sign with NBC, however, joking that he initially wanted to make a 13-week deal (a nod to his first contract). He ultimately signed through 2005, indicating that it was symbolic of surpassing Letterman's run with 12 years of hosting.
In 2003, O'Brien's own production company, Conaco, was added as a producer of Late Night. The show celebrated its 10th anniversary, another milestone that O'Brien said he wanted to achieve with his 2002 contract. During the anniversary show, Mr. T handed O'Brien a chain with a large gold "7" on it:
O'Brien: But Mr. T, we've been on the air for ten years!
Mr. T: I know that, fool, but you only been funny for seven!
The show's house band is The Max Weinberg 7, led by drummer Max Weinberg, who also serves as a sounding board for O'Brien on the show (more notably since Andy Richter's departure). The other six members are Mark Pender on trumpet, Richie "LaBamba" Rosenberg on trombone, Mike Merritt on bass, Jerry Vivino on saxophone and brother Jimmy Vivino on guitar, and Scott Healy on keyboard. James Wormworth serves as backup drummer when Weinberg goes on tour with Bruce Springsteen. With the departure of Andy Richter, Max Weinberg assumed a bigger role as an interlocutor for O'Brien's jokes. One common running gag is Max's awkwardness on camera and his apparent lack of chemistry with Conan. Weinberg is often used in sketches as well, which usually evolve around his purported sexual deviance (mostly a penchant for bedding barely legal groupies), although long running sketches have also spoofed Max's lack of knowledge of current affairs.
"LaBamba" is also used as the butt of many of Conan's jokes. These humorous sketches usually revolve around LaBamba's sizeable mustache (which O'Brien has both decorated in Christmas lights and had shaven off), his poor acting skills, and his alleged inability to read sheet music. Mark Pender is a talented singer who is known for his songs on current events which end with him screeching uncontrollably and climbing the risers into the audience. Bassist Mike Merritt, the only African-American member of the group, was also featured in a series of skits in the fall of 2006, parodying Survivor: Cook Islands in which the band was divided up by race in a series of music competitions. A couple of skits have made fun of the band's lack of talent or penchant for laziness and drunkenness, but in reality they are accomplished musicians. All members of the 7 have successful side careers as studio musicians.
Following a format featured in many talk shows with live bands, the Max Weinberg 7 plays the show's opening and closing themes, plays into and out of commercial breaks (they actually play through the entire break for the studio audience), and until recently, also played after O'Brien's monologue as he went to his desk (in April 2008, the show's format changed slightly, inserting a commercial break immediately after Conan's monologue, thus eliminating the Max Weinberg 7's short feature) . Conan always jumps in the air and points to the band seconds after he enters the stage. The show's opening theme was written by Howard Shore and John Lurie (a finalist for the job as band leader). The show's closing theme song is called "Cornell Knowledge," a song lifted from Jerry and Jimmy Vivino's first album togther. However; on Late Night it is played in much quicker time than the album version.
The band plays a wide variety of songs during the show's commercial breaks — usually popular music from a variety of eras. Weinberg sometimes takes extended leaves of absence to tour with Bruce Springsteen as the drummer for his E Street Band. During his absence, temporary replacement drummers are hired (currently James Wormworth), and the band is led by Jimmy Vivino ("Jimmy Vivino and the Max Weinberg 7").
Joel Godard, a long-time announcer for NBC shows (including the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade), has been the show's announcer and an occasional comedy contributor since O'Brien started hosting the show. These comedy bits usually revolve around Goddard's supposed homosexual fetishes, deviant sexual habits, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies. The humor comes in part from Goddard's delivery. No matter how depressing or deviant the topic being discussed he always does so in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice and with a huge smile plastered on his face. Several sketches have ended with Goddard apparently committing suicide in his announcers booth.
Members of the show's writing staff frequently appear in sketches on the show, such as Brian McCann. McCann's recurring sketch characters include the "FedEx Pope" and "Preparation H Raymond." Other frequent performing writers (with some of their recurring characters) include Brian Stack (Hannigan the Traveling salesman, The Offensive Radio Singer Ghost, The Interrupter, Clive Clemens, Frankenstein, etc.), Kevin Dorff (Coked-up werewolf, Mansy the half-man/half-pansy), and Andy Blitz (Awful Ballgame Chanter, Vin Diesel's brother, Leonard Diesel). Blitz went so far as to travel to India for one skit in which he carried his computer through the streets of India to get computer help firsthand from the telephone representative at NBC's technical help center.
Late Night employs a number of extras, many of whom are frequently reused in different episodes. O'Brien's show also launched the career of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. Prior to joining the cast of Saturday Night Live, Amy Poehler often appeared as a bit player.
Unusually for a late night talk show, Late Night makes frequent use of various costumed characters such as "The Masturbating Bear", "Robot on a Toilet", "Pimpbot5000", "The Fed Ex Pope", "Chess Piece with a Mullet Riding a Rascal Scooter while Listening to a Ringtone of Little Red Corvette", and "Gorilla Nurse Using an Old Fashioned Abdominal Exerciser While Listening to Angel in the Morning by Juice Newton." The humor in these sketches often derives from the crude construction of the characters costumes as well as the absurdist nature of their conception. For example, Pimpbot5000 was a 1950's style robot who dressed and acted in the manner of an exaggerated blaxploitation pimp, while The Masturbating Bear was a man in a bear costume wearing an oversized diaper who would inevitably begin to fondle himself to the tune of Aram Khachaturian's Sabre Dance when brought on stage. Many of these characters did little more in their appearances than walk across the stage or be wheeled out from behind the curtain (indeed the costume of The Sears Tower Wearing Sears Clothing was so unwieldy that he could hardly move) but some, notably the Masturbating Bear, had extensive sketches on the show.
More recently one of the shows graphic designers Pierre Bernard has been featured in skits such as: "Pierre Bernard's Recliner of Rage" and, after leaving a heartfelt message about his concern for the safety of the staff's free dinner due to that night's pasta "poking his tongue" causing it to "hurt a little".
The show's format typically consists of an opening monologue from O'Brien, followed by a "desk bit" — a comedy piece which occurs while O'Brien is at his desk. In the show's second act and fourth acts (segments between commercial breaks), O'Brien interviews two celebrity guests, between which in the third act O'Brien lists the next night's/week's guests. There is often a comedy bit as well during this segment. The show's fifth act is usually reserved for a musical or stand-up comedy performance, or occasionally another guest interview. The show's final act is usually a quick "goodnight" and the closing credits, which sometimes features part of an earlier sketch.
During the live tapings and prior to the show, the audience watches a montage of highlights from the show, and Brian McCann greets the audience (this task was formerly undertaken by head writer Mike Sweeney). McCann tells a few jokes, tells the audience what to expect, and finally introduces the band and then Conan. Conan then thanks the audience for coming, meeting as many audience members as he can. After the show has finished taping, Conan sings the "End of the Show Song", which he purports has never aired and never will air on TV.
On December 6, 2005 Late Night with Conan O'Brien segments began selling on the iTunes Store. Most segments were priced at $1.99, as were most episodes of other shows, with "special" best-ofs and other longer segments priced at $9.99. In December, 2007 NBC stopped selling all its television shows on iTunes. The show is now offered free at Hulu.com and the NBC website.
From February 10-13, 2004, Late Night broadcast from the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, Canada. The shows were highly publicized, and demand for tickets was significant. Those desiring tickets e-mailed in and tickets were distributed by a lottery system. Despite the inhospitable winter weather, line-ups for the shows stretched around city blocks and some fans lined up the night before the shows to get good seats. More tickets than seats were distributed, and many without tickets lined up in hopes to get standby tickets, but were turned away. By the Friday taping, fans were encouraged not to bother. Those with tickets that could not fit in the main theatre were allowed to go to the Winter Garden Theatre (above the Elgin) to watch the show on a closed circuit feed from downstairs. The guests for these episodes were all Canadians (with the exception of Adam Sandler), and included such stars as Jim Carrey and Mike Myers. As the show was taped at a theater, unlike the trip to L.A., the set built was not like the show's standard set. A Toronto-themed backdrop painting was hung at the back of the stage, and a copy of the New York desk (with maple leaves on its front instead of circles), a maple leaf coffee table and a standard guest chair and couch were on a riser at center stage. O'Brien did his monologues standing in front of this area. The stage was otherwise bare. Max's drumkit was on the end of stage-right, while the rest of the band was placed in the lower private boxes next to the stage. Joel did his announcing from the upper box nearest the stage on the same side.
From May 9-12, 2006, the show made a very similar venture to the Chicago Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, taking cues from their previous trip to Toronto. Between April 30-May 4, 2007, the show originated from the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco, California.
One episode, broadcast on March 10, 2006, was compiled mainly of footage from O'Brien's trip to Finland. The episode was not strictly taped as a live episode there however, but was prefaced by an introduction by O'Brien taped in New York. The Finland episode came as the culmination of a long running joke on the show. Earlier in the season, Conan had been informed by some Finnish audience members that he bore a resemblance to their (female) president Tarja Halonen who was running for re-election. Conan subsequently made a running joke of the resemblance, often putting a picture of Halonen side by side with his own face. Conan's interest in the joke increased when he discovered that Late Night is quite popular in Finland, and that his running joke had made its way into actual news commentary about the Finnish election. After this discovery, Conan began making satirical commercials in support of Halonen and vowed to travel to Finland to meet her if she won re-election. When she did indeed win re-election in January 2006, Conan traveled to Finland and met with Halonen as well as with one "lucky" Finnish fan.
Aside from more "traditional" location shows, the show also did special one-shots in its early years. In 1995, one episode of the show was taped aboard a New York City ferry in NY Harbor. Dubbed "The Show on a Boat" by the showtunes-style song-and-dance number performed by a trio of "sailors" at the start of the show, O'Brien, Richter, the band and guests were all crammed onto the deck of the ferry. The show was taped at its normal afternoon time, while it was still light out.
Another, more unexpected, "location" shoot occurred on October 10, 1996, when a five-alarm fire in Rockefeller Plaza rendered the 6A studios out-of-commission for the remainder of that week. The fire happened on early Thursday morning, which left O'Brien's staff precious little time to assemble a show elsewhere. Pressed for time as 12:35 approached, Conan taped the show outside, near the outside walking area in front of 30 Rock, after dark. Being October, it was quite chilly outside, and despite Conan and company being bundled up in winter jackets, they were still visibly cold (Max Weinberg could be seen huffing hot air onto his hands during the opening strains of one of the night's numerous fire-themed cover songs.) Furthering the unfortunate nature of the evening's circumstances was the final guest, Julie Scardina, who brought along wild animals, including birds that Conan explained: "We were supposed to have you on, and let [the birds] fly around the studio, and it would have been GREAT, then fire destroys our studio, we have to tape outside, and so we have to keep the birds tied up. You were the worst possible guest we could have scheduled for tonight!" (paraphrased) Earlier in the show, Conan and Andy walked into a nearby department store, camera crew in tow, and bought a massaging leather recliner for the first guest, Samuel L. Jackson. Chris Kattan was also a guest on this episode. The second of the two "fire shows," on Friday night, was taped in the Today Show studio, which wasn't affected by the fire. Conan and company dressed in conservative sweater vests and had the Sauer family as their in-studio "audience." Conan's guests were Eric Idle, Peter Gallagher and Los Lobos.
During the Northeast Blackout of 2003, Conan and the staff taped a short 5-minute introduction explaining that the episode they had planned would not be taking place due to the blackout. Studio 6A was powered by a generator and lit by battery-powered floodlights. A standby show was aired in-progress after the intro.
Other shows that were taped in the regular 6A studio were augmented by special gimmicks: "Time Travel Week," four episodes from early 1996, where Conan and Andy (and the rest of the crew) "time-traveled" to a different point in time each night. Times/locations included The Civil War, Ancient Greece, The Future and The Early 80s (featuring a cameo by David Letterman in the cold open, who occupied Conan's studio in 1983, cruelly brushing off Conan and Andy's attempt at explaining their presence in Letterman's dressing room by saying "Why don't you two fellas go find a nice, warm place to screw yourselves. Security!").
In 1997, a special episode was taped where the studio audience was composed solely of grade-school age children, primarily 5-10 years of age. Conan interacted with the children in innovative ways, respecting their intelligence and getting them to boo whenever the guest (Dave Foley) became too long-winded and boring.
A 2003 episode was re-shot entirely in clay animation several months after its first airing, including the opening credits and commercial bumpers. The episode's originally broadcast soundtrack was retained while the visuals were reproduced to mirror the original footage in a small-scale reproduction of the studio 6A.
On October 31, 2006, a similarly conceptualized Halloween episode was created from an episode which originally aired in May and featured Larry King, among other guests. Using a process the show called "Skelevision", all the visuals were re-shot with human skeletons adorned with a few identifying articles of clothing and accessories (such as Larry King's suspenders) in place of all humans, including those in photographs. This re-shoot was shot using the actual studio, and the puppeteers moved the skeletons with wires and cables while being visually obscured by green screen technology. Once again, the opening and bumpers were altered, this time including a model of a hearse funeral car winding through a foggy landscape and cemetery, and a ghoulish intro announcer in place of Joel Godard.
After two months of being off-air, the first show to air during the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike on January 2, 2008 featured a small musical segment at the beginning of the show detailing O'Brien's newly grown beard in a show of support for the striking writers. At the beginning of the January 28th episode, it was revealed that Conan had shaved his beard, which was followed with a similar musical segment.
Several times during the episodes produced during the writer's strike, O'Brien would kill time by spinning his wedding ring on his desk, which he previously only did during rehearsals. His personal best was 41 seconds, achieved during an un-aired rehearsal. After several unsuccessful on-air attempts to break his record, during the show originally broadcast on February 9, 2008, O'Brien broke his record for endurance ring spinning, setting a time of 51 seconds by coating his wedding ring with Vaseline and spinning it on a Teflon surface. The feat was accomplished with the help of MIT physics professor Peter Fisher.
Early on in the later half of the 2007-2008 Writer's Guild Strike, Conan O'Brien accused his show for being the sole cause of presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's status in the votes due to his use of The Walker Texas Ranger Lever while Chuck Norris was coincidentally sponsoring Huckabee. Stephen Colbert made the claim that because of "the Colbert bump", he was responsible for Mike Huckabee's current success in the 2008 presidential race. Conan O'Brien claimed that he was responsible for Colbert's success because he had made mention of him on his show. In response, Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, claimed that he was responsible for the success of O'Brien, and in turn the success of Huckabee and Colbert. This resulted in a three-part comedic battle between the three faux-pundits, with all three appearing on each other's shows. The feud ended on Late Night with an all-out mock brawl between the three talk-show hosts.
The set of Late Night has changed a few times cosmetically, but has retained a basic structure: the performance space at the viewer's left, and the desk area, to the viewer's right, where interviews are done. O'Brien does his monologue in the performance area, emerging at the start of each episode from the area where musical guests perform. The Max Weinberg 7 are in the corner made by the stage-right wall and the wall in front of the audience. The desk area has a desk for O'Brien, a chair and couch(es) to the viewer's left for guests (and originally Andy Richter), and a coffee table. Primarily, set changes have involved the background behind the desk and chair and couch. The set was tweaked in the early days of the show. The band was given more decorative risers, and most of the members were given podium-style music stands. The desk area was also changed, most notably by the addition of a much larger window behind O'Brien where there had previously been a simple wall. The Empire State building was moved to this new window, along with the Twin Towers, which had previously been added to the original window. In the old window, the Chrysler Building took their place, though the two views continued to be tweaked over the years. The full moon was eventually reportedly removed. The carpet was also changed from a sandy color to a mauve. In 1996, a few other changes were made including leaving the curtains open for the monologue, and a new bandstand. Max got a new red drum riser, and the rest of the band got a two-level bandstand - a format still used today.
The first overhaul to the set came during the 1996 Olympic break. The new desk area facade feaured a balcony instead of windows. At the sides of the set, as walls, were a checkerboard of blue and purple cushioned panels. The guest chair and sofa were replaced with a more traditional shaped set in a purple-blue, with yellow wavy-lined pattern. Behind the desk and the guest chair, was a lattice of metal bars forming a transparent wall. Behind the wall was a stone balcony edge, beyond which was a cityscape. Many buildings were depicted, and they were much "closer" to the set than in the original windows. Buildings spanned past the ceiling of the backdrop, and none appeared to be actual well-known New York City buildings. A new desk and coffee table were constructed, similar to the originals, except with a diamond-like set of columns instead of the ribbed rings. The desk was also placed parallel to the chair and couch for the first time. The rest of the set was also redressed in accordance with the style of the desk area. Four black & white pictures hung on the wall to the right of the desk (possibly also present on the original set), of Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and David Letterman as a tribute to those who have hosted late night shows in New York City. Allen, Paar, and Carson have died during O'Brien's reign as Late Night host; after each of their passings, O'Brien took the time to remember them on the show, discussing personal anecdotes and how each one was supportive of him when he first started hosting Late Night. The pictures hang in about the same spot on the current set.
The backdrop behind the balcony in the desk area was changed again in the middle of 1998. The grey and off-white background of many close buildings was replaced by a blue sky with only a handful of buildings in the distance, mainly in silhouette with lights. The Chrysler Building was the only building near the set, behind the guest chair, while the Empire State Building was farther away, between the chair and the desk. The light blue faded to darker blue at the top of the set and a few stars were visible, along with a large full moon, well to the right of the desk, normally too high to be seen on camera.
The backdrop was modified in early 1999, with the sky darkened to a deep blue fading to a purple horizon and a starfield. Buildings were given realistic detail, and the full moon was retouched into a crescent moon. New lighting was added, and lighting of both the desk area and the performance area would continue to be periodically tweaked. More purple had been added to the sky by 2001.
In late August 2001, while the show was on break, the set was completely remodeled for the second time in the show's history. The balcony concept was used again, but instead of a fake window separating the balcony, the balcony rail was directly behind the seating area. A new desk, with a field of circles within squares on its front was created, and a new chair and sofa were brought in, with a pattern of multi-colored layered squares. The view behind the balcony was a more realistic view of New York City looking south from a tall building, though geographically inaccurate. The buildings were far away and only the Empire State Building, between the desk and chair, and the Twin Towers, slightly to the right, were notable. The Chrysler Building was off to the right of the desk near what would be the Hudson River - not where the building would actually be. Unlike past sets, almost all of the buildings on the backdrop reached no higher than the head of a seated guest. Most of the backdrop was plain sky, though the crescent moon from the previous set remained in about the same position. In the performance area, the back wall, which previously appeared to be an un-dressed studio wall, was fitted with a pattern of blue triangular outcroppings. The floor had a similar circles-within-squares pattern to the desk, and the monologue and musical performance area were framed by squared arches. The band got a new performance area, though with the same layout. From the ceiling of the desk area, several white orbs could be lowered, which O'Brien showed off in the set's debut. The orbs have never been used functionally on the show aside from as decor.
Unfortunately, and in a bad case of timing, the September 11 attacks occurred about a week after the new set's debut. Late Night, like the other late night shows went on hiatus again after the attacks. When they returned, a curtain had been added behind the balcony with gathered material at intervals designed to obstruct the spot where the Twin Towers were depicted. After having a chance to retouch the backdrop image to remove the Twin Towers, the curtain was removed. The buildings were also retouched, with more light showing in the skyline. More contrast was added to the sky as well as a light starfield. Perhaps deciding that vast sky was too plain of a backdrop, the decorative curtain was again added, without the bunched material. Like the past set, color tweaks continued to be made for a while after, but the set has remained fairly unchanged since.
|Country||TV Network(s)||Weekly Schedule (local time)|
|Australia||The Comedy Channel||11.40pm Weeknights|
|Canada||A and NBC||12:35 a.m. - 1:35 a.m. EST Weeknights|
|Israel||yes stars 3|
|Sweden||TV4 Plus||Usually starts some time between 11.55pm and 12.10 am Weeknights|
|Latin America||I-Sat||12.30am Weeknights|
|Turkey||e2||11.00pm Tuesday - Friday|
CNBC Europe used to air Late Night with Conan O'Brien on weeknights from 23.45-00.30 CET, with weekend editions on Saturdays and Sundays at 21.45-22.30 CET. However in March 2007, CNBC Europe decided to show only the weekend editions, and drop the weeknight editions, to make way for more business news programmes in their weeknight schedules.
On the week of 4 August 2008, however, CNBC Europe has discontinued showing the NBC Nightly News, which for many years was shown live from America in a 00.30-01.00 CET slot. Late Night with Conan O'Brien has now replaced NBC Nightly News in the 00.30-01.00 slot. The weeknight editions are a 30-minuted condensed version of the show. The show follows the weeknight condensed version of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno which airs at 00.00 CET.