TOM PUTNAM: Good evening, everyone. We're going to begin in just a minute, but I wanted to welcome you all. I'm Tom Putnam, the Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, and I wanted to share a few announcements before we begin.
First, tonight's Forum is actually going to be broadcast live on Sirius Radio, so we're going to start promptly right at 6:00 for the listening audience.
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We appreciate your generosity, and we'll begin in just a minute.
TOM McNAUGHT: So good evening. I'm Tom McNaught. I'm the Executive Director of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and on behalf of Tom Putnam, who is the Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, we would like to welcome all of you to this wonderful Forum.
It is my great pleasure to welcome you to this special Kennedy Library Forum with the legendary, the awesome Conan O'Brien. Or as he is best known by his 5.7 million Twitter followers, the Voice of the People. [applause]
Now, there are many similarities between Conan O'Brien and President Kennedy. Both grew up in large Irish Catholic families in Brookline, Massachusetts, and both spent much of their youths goofing off while somehow still managing to get into Harvard.
Not only did Conan manage to get into Harvard, he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in US history and literature and at the same time he served as editor of The Harvard Lampoon for two years in a row. As great a comedic genius in his writing as he is in person, Conan wrote for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons before going on to host Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Tonight Show, and now Conan, which you can follow weeknights at 11 p.m. on TBS. "People ask me why I named the show Conan," he said. "I did it so I'd be harder to replace." [laughter] We're so very proud that Conan O'Brien serves as a member of the Kennedy Library Foundation's Board of Directors. How that came to pass was his friendship with Caroline Kennedy.
Caroline tells us that the more time she spent with Conan, the more she came to appreciate not only his keen sense of humor, but his deep interest in history and, in particular, presidential history. These interests ultimately convinced her that Conan would accept her invitation to join the Board of Directors. She knew that anyone who has busts of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt in his office, a Dwight Eisenhower mug on his talk show desk, and photographs of her father hanging on the walls of his home would be an easy sell.
Our moderator tonight is Wesley Morris, a film critic at the Boston Globe and recipient of this year's prestigious Pulitzer Prize for criticism. [applause] His body of work was described by the Pulitzer judges as "smart, inventive film criticism, distinguished by pinpoint prose in an easy traverse between the art house and big screen box office."
A graduate of Yale, Wesley went on to write film reviews and essays for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle before joining the staff of the Boston Globe in 2002. Again, we congratulate him on his Pulitzer.
Before closing, I wanted to note that in addition to serving on our Board of Directors, Conan O'Brien serves as the Honorary Chair of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation's New Frontier Network. The purpose of that Network is to bring together young leaders committed to advancing President Kennedy's ideals of civic engagement and public service to new generations. I want to welcome the many members of the New Frontier Network who are with us in the audience tonight and to share with you why we asked Conan for his help in reaching out to your generation. It is because he believes so strongly in your potential to make this world a better place. In his closing words at the final broadcast of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, Conan had this message for his younger audience: "And all I ask is one thing," he said, "and this is, I'm asking this particularly of young people that watch. Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it's my least favorite quality. It doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you're kind, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you; it's just true."
Please join me in welcoming to the Kennedy Library Wesley Morris and Conan O'Brien. [applause]
WESLEY MORRIS: Hi.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Hey!
WESLEY MORRIS: How's it going?
CONAN O'BRIEN: It's great. I want to thank you for stepping in and doing this. This is amazing, and I think this illustrates everything that's wrong with our country right now. The Pulitzer Prize winner is asking questions of the idiot on television. [laughter] I think this should be the other way around, but maybe I'll come back and I'll talk to you.
WESLEY MORRIS: No, I think what you'll discover in the next 59 minutes is that I have no idea what I'm doing! One of the things I was interested in talking to you about was your sort of comic persona, which is this sort of self-deprecating way of going about being funny that actually kind of belies your ambition in some ways. Before your career had gotten started, you were the valedictorian of your high school, Brookline High School. You were the editor of your high school paper, is that right?
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, let's just say yeah. [laughter]
WESLEY MORRIS: Is that true? I mean, if I say anything that's not true …
CONAN O'BRIEN: It was a long time ago. It was the early 1940s, there was a war on; I don't remember. [laughter] It was a long time ago.
WESLEY MORRIS: Your parents are here. Anything that's not true, someone will, I'm sure…
CONAN O'BRIEN: My parents are sitting in the front row judging me as we speak, just shaking their heads.
WESLEY MORRIS: Is it true? Did he edit the paper?
CONAN O'BRIEN: My mother doesn't know. There were six of us; they're not sure which one I am. [laughter] It was a kind of chaotic It's a Wonderful Life house with everyone running around. So they don't remember. They're a terrible authority on what I did when and who exactly I am.
I've had a lot of people ask me about the self-deprecating thing over the years, and a lot of people say almost like it's an act. And I say, no, my people come by this very honestly. We really do. It's not an act. And I think your personality is formed at a very young age, your core personality. Scientists will claim that it's by the age of two or three, but easily by the time you're 15 years old, you have established who you are, or 90% of what your core personality is going to be; it's all downloaded.
I was not an impressive person at all. If I am at all now, certainly 15 was not the time to take the core sample. [laughter] I was a very skinny, gangly kid. I had acne. I had this giant mop of hair I still don't know what to do with. I had an odd name -- which is my father's fault -- and I didn't know where I really fit into the scheme of things. So being self-deprecating was a defense mechanism, and I came by it honestly. Then later on you achieve these things and you're still working -- to this day, I'm working from the personality of a 15-year-old who's six-four and 111 pounds and who can't seem to get eye contact with any woman in the United States.
WESLEY MORRIS: Just go like that.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Just go like that? I've tried that, I've crouched down; it's not the same. So it's tough. I really believe that this part of my personality is very real, and whatever happens to me in life is not going to change it at this point.
WESLEY MORRIS: Well, I think that's the thing that people respond to though, right, that it seems genuine.
CONAN O'BRIEN: I thought it was my good looks.
WESLEY MORRIS: Ah, that's number two.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Wow, that's an indication that that was wrong. A long time ago, when I first got the Late Night job – and this is now, it's hard to believe, almost 20 years ago – but when I first got that Late Night show, nobody knew who I was and everybody was saying, who is this guy? There were a lot of people calling up my friends. They were calling up roommates, people who had known me. They didn't really even have a picture of me, the media. They called my college roommate, Eric Reiff, and they said, "Tell us about this guy, who is he?" And he said, "The one thing I'll tell you about him is that he doesn't like to be funny at people; he likes to be funny with people. He likes to join with them and make something funny happen." And I think that's the core of what I do on my show, and what I've liked to do over time is make a funny situation happen with somebody else. I don't know if that's coming from the family I come from, big family, but I like to make things happen with people. It's sort of a communal thing. I'm not comfortable sitting next to someone and just shooting a laser beam at them of comedy and maybe making them the victim. It makes me uncomfortable.
WESLEY MORRIS: Because then you kind of have to get out of that situation, too.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Just go to commercial. [laughter] That's how all the other ones do it. It's not even really a moral choice. Everybody in this room finds out at a certain point in their life what they're good at, what they're not good at. You arrive at that and it's kind of a mystical experience. There are people who are brilliant at dissecting someone and taking them apart with their comedy. I'm not very good at that, that's not what I do. So I'd love to say it was a moral choice. I don't even think it's a moral choice. This is just what I do.
WESLEY MORRIS: But when did you figure that out? First of all, I don't know if everybody knows this, there are some other impressive things about you that seem to have nothing to do with your comedy, like the fact that you wrote your senior thesis on children in Faulkner and O'Connor.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, I worked really hard on this thesis. I was a history and literature major, and you need to write a thesis your senior year. It comes time and I wrote this thesis. It's the most pretentious title you've ever heard. It's Literary Progeria in the Works of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. [laughter] And I wrote this thing, and it's like 90 pages long, and it's about the prematurely aged child in Southern literature as a metaphor for the South, which knew defeat in a country that had never known defeat. Yeah, right. [laughter] People are filing out the back. People are jumping into the ocean and swimming away.
WESLEY MORRIS: There is an agent calling your phone right now. It's a book!
CONAN O'BRIEN: That's a movie! But I wrote this thesis and then flash forward to this tour I did two years ago, and I'm living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. We get all these great guest stars and I'm playing 5,000-seat houses and we're sold out across the country and we're flying around and we're on a bus and it's like a rock show. After the show people would hold up T-shirts to sign and sign my arm and sign this and sign that. And I'd come off the show and someone said, "I've got your thesis!" [laughter] "Sign your thesis!"
And I just had this amazing flash from working away on one of the earliest word processors in 1984. I mean, kids today wouldn't believe it, but it looked like a phone booth, and it had a keyboard attached to it and you'd type away and you had to keep putting quarters in it. It was in a room at Mather House. This is all true. And an alarm would go off, so you'd be starting to get an idea and you'd hear a "nyee, nyee, nyee." You'd put more quarters in it. And I wrote this thesis. And the idea of that misery and then knowing that sometimes an 18-year-old girl would be handing me my thesis after a rock show was … Well, she was older than that, nineteen, easy. But yes, I don't know how I got started on that. You brought it up. I had a flashback.
WESLEY MORRIS: I brought up the thesis. It's a great idea. I think that what we were talking about, this idea that you are not as smart as … The thing is that you don't seem as smart as you actually are. [laughter] [applause] But that's your thing, right?
CONAN O'BRIEN: Has anyone ever walked out on one of these before?
WESLEY MORRIS: You might be the first.
CONAN O'BRIEN: I know exactly what you're talking about.
WESLEY MORRIS: You make it easier for people to sort of be around you by underplaying all your virtues and strong characteristics.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Also, the other thing is, anybody knows the more you learn, the more you realize what you don't know. When I first moved out to Los Angeles, I started teaching myself the guitar. I went and bought the Mel Bay Chord Book and a $90 guitar and started sitting in my boxer shorts in my $380 a month apartment after work and teaching myself the guitar and living off ramen noodles and tuna fish. I remember thinking, “All I want to do is know three chords.”
What happens is once you start to get to a level that you never thought you'd reach before, all you know is how terrible you are because you just keep getting exposed to new levels. And I really do have that feeling constantly. I think I'll have a funny show, I think I've done something funny and then I'll see one of Woody Allen's best movies, or something Bob Hope did in the 1950s, or I'll read something that James Thurber wrote. I'll just constantly be reminded that I don't know anything, and then you just go back to square one.
The more you think you know about history, the more you realize I really don't know anything yet about history. So there's a constant process and it's just probably my personality, but I like to be humbled. I'm never that far from the kid from Brookline High School who felt very insecure about going to Harvard. When I went to Harvard and I met people who had gone to Exeter and Andover, and they had taken Latin – I hadn't taken Latin; there wasn't Latin in my high school – I was very intimidated. And it's that process over and over again. And I think that just keeps happening throughout life. You think you've got it figured out and then you have kids. And then you're presented again with you know nothing, you know nothing and you have a lot to learn, and they look at you like you're an idiot. And half the time they just watched you do something really stupid. So that's a humbling experience. So I like that. I like to constantly be brought back down again.
WESLEY MORRIS: And we get that. I mean, that's all I was really saying before: is part of your brilliance as a comedian is to underplay your brilliance. You know what I mean? You may not be consciously doing it, but you wouldn't have gotten this far if there weren't …
CONAN O'BRIEN: You know what it is? Every famous person you're ever going to meet or see, all they've done is hyperrefined the defense mechanisms that they used when they were on the playground and they'd want to use the parallel bars and someone hit them in the face. My experience was you go through a checklist when you're young. And I don't know how many young people we have here, but you go through a checklist of, “What am I not good at?” And that fills up really quickly. That was, for me, just very quickly it gets sorted out:
Let's play ball for the first time with other kids. I'm not good at that. [laughter]
Let's go talk to the pretty girl. That didn't work. [laughter]
And it's just a constant list. And I went down the list and it just kept going and going and going, and then I found out, you know what? I can just defuse that situation by being funny. And he was about to strike me in the face – this is my dad we're talking about [laughter] Come on, he loves it. And it's true. This is this morning, I'm talking about. [laughter]
But you're working your way down the list and I defused the situation, and the nickel drops. Everybody in this room has had that situation, whether it's humor or being an athlete or you're a good cook, whatever. You figure out what it is. And when you're a kid, you're, "Man, I've got that." And I kept looking for other things and they weren't showing up, so I kept "I'll work on that some more and I'll work on that some more." And that leads to a TV show and mental illness. [laughter]
WESLEY MORRIS: What was the moment when you realized that that was what was going on with you?
CONAN O'BRIEN: I knew I had something I really liked to do. I liked to perform. I did that. At some point in 5th grade, I remember, or 4th grade, I used to be in plays all the time and I used to write things. And I thought this is something I'd like to do. And for some reason, I had an out-of-time fascination with movies from the '30s and '40s, because they were shown a lot here in Boston on the UHF stations. I don't know if anybody remembers, but the days before cable there was the ABC affiliate, the NBC affiliate, the CBS affiliate and then Channel 56 and Channel 38, and they would show old movies; that's all they would show. I used to watch those and it was lost on me that these were made 50 years. So I would watch these movies like Yankee Doodle Dandy, where Jim Cagney's talking real fast and he's dancing and he's singing, and I would think, that's what you need to know to be an entertainer. Of course, it's the 1970s. [laughter] Like an idiot, I don't understand that there's been a huge cultural movement. And I go to my parents and I said -- I'm even talking like Jimmy Cagney -- "Now, see here, you." [laughter] And I said I need to learn how to be a tap dancer and my parents were like, "What are you talking about?" And I said, "I want to be in show business some day, and this kid's got to know how to tap his toes, you see?" [laughter] And they were like, "Well, why are you smoking?" [laughter] "Why are you in black and white?" "We'll get to that later! You shut your yaps, see? I got to learn how to dance."
So they went and they got me a tap dancing teacher, God bless them. They went and they called all around and they found this guy, Stanley Brown, who had been the protégé of Bill Bojangles Robinson. This is all completely true. And I went and he's this very older African American gentleman who was a great tap dancer. And he lived in a dilapidated studio. Everyone there was a jazz dancer and everyone was black, and then this white kid with orange hair would show up with tap shoes under his arm.
WESLEY MORRIS: How tall were you?
CONAN O'BRIEN: I was short. And then I grew overnight. Like the Hulk, I grew like three feet in one year. And you could hear it. Like, my parents could hear bone knitting up in the attic.
WESLEY MORRIS: But when you were taking this tap class were you still a little guy?
CONAN O'BRIEN: I was still small, and I was learning tap and I thought this is what I need to know. Then a few years later I thought, I'm in Boston. And at the time, TV, or show business could not have felt further away. The only experience any of us had had with any kind of celebrity was Robert Urich, who was in Spenser: For Hire. They shot a few exteriors around here, and that was my experience with show business: is that I knew someone who knew someone who saw Robert Urich in Filene's Basement. [laughter] So I remember thinking this isn't going to happen.
My dad's a scientist and my mom's a lawyer and forget it. So I buckled down to be a really hardcore student, and really worked hard and was very serious. I got into Harvard thinking I'm going to be a serious writer of letters, and I'm going to do great things. And within days of getting to Harvard, my roommate, John O'Connor, said, "I'm going to the Harvard Lampoon to check it out." I didn't really know much about the Harvard Lampoon, but I went along and the rest of it just happened.
And then the next thing you know, I was blown away that people valued humor as something other than just "this is what you do for your friends to make them laugh." And then I started to hear tell that you could go places and they would maybe pay you if you did this. And you'd think, is that possible? It sounded crazy. And I ended up going out to Los Angeles and lots of twists and turns and ups and downs.
So there was never a conscious decision for a long time to get into this business I think until the Lampoon. And then I started to feel like, this is interesting. This seems to have some merit beyond getting people not to hit me. So that changed everything.
WESLEY MORRIS: It's interesting. I think a lot of people who figure out what they want to do sort of figure it out by accident. And it's sort of reverse ambition. A lot of it is luck; so if you're in the right place at the right time, or you think you might like something so you try it and it sticks. Once you're in Los Angeles, it sounds at some point that you sort of became a comedy student in some ways.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yes. I always pay attention. My dad, who has always been interested in comedy, had always been interested in why did this work and why did that not work and still loves to call me occasionally and explain to me why something I did on television didn't work or did work. [laughter] But he had an ear for it, an eye for it, and I adopted the same thing. We just both loved to watch Johnny Carson. A lot of people in my family loved to watch him. And my dad loved late night television and the movies, the Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies. Just some wildly different stuff. The movie, Sleeper, Woody Allen. And we would all appreciate the same moment.
You don't even realize you're a student of these things. Your passion takes you this way. If there's one theme you could maybe take away from tonight, I think very little of this is decision. I think a lot of it is passion. And you have very little control over that as an individual. You just find yourself being drawn certain ways, and you keep refining that and working at it.
I've always said I'm very unimpressed by talent. And by that I mean I have many people over the years say, "My kid's going to be great, he's got a lot of talent." And I think I do nothing but meet people with lots of talent. It's what you do with it. There's a lot of talent out there. There's a lot of talent in Los Angeles and New York; there's a lot of talent throughout the country. And you can see this all the time in sports; people have incredible amount of talent. And how many times have you heard the story that the person with the most natural talent disappears and it was the person who was largely ignored.
Hard work, there is no substitute for it. And that's the thing I'm always telling young people and interns that work on the show. That's the bad news: they have found no substitute for working really hard. I worked my ass off when I was a kid and in my 20s and 30s, and I still work really hard. And I think there is no substitute for it, and I think that is the good news and the bad news.
If they someday invent a talent meter that tells you how much natural talent you were born with, I'd be afraid to go near it. Because I don't know, it might say "not that much, but you worked your ass off and you compensated this much." Or, "you had some, but man, did you maximize it." And I think that was my obsession was whatever I have, I want to max it out. I want to see what I can do with this. And that's probably what made the biggest difference.
WESLEY MORRIS: So we should say that this is a conversation with Conan O'Brien. I'm Wesley Morris from the Boston Globe, and we're talking … CONAN O'BRIEN: Was that for the radio?
WESLEY MORRIS: That's for the radio.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Oh, I thought you just had a seizure of some kind. [laughter] WESLEY MORRIS: I warned you about this!
CONAN O'BRIEN: I thought your doctor told you once in a while tell yourself who you are and where you are. [laughter] And proceed. I'm Conan O'Brien.
WESLEY MORRIS: A Pulitzer Prize fell on my head and I forgot who I was.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Exactly! That scared me. But I'm okay now.
WESLEY MORRIS: I was kind of, like a lot of people, a couple of years ago when that whole Jay Leno thing happened, I was sort of struck by – and this is in line with what we have been talking about which is what makes you so likeable and so relatable in a lot of ways and a lot of it has to do with this defense mechanism you've developed that became like a comedy style. But when that whole thing went down, I think the version that we got anyway very much made people able to relate to your side of the story and made it really difficult to have any sympathy for Jay Leno. I don't think it had anything to do with either one of you. I think that just became how the media … Well, you might beg to differ. [laughter]
CONAN O'BRIEN: I remain silent.
WESLEY MORRIS: Okay. But it was just interesting that the nation sort of had chosen sides, I think. And you seemed much more sympathetic, both because I think of who we imagined you to be as a person and also I think we were able to relate to what we thought was you having something promised to you, given to you, and then rescinded. I was just sort of curious if there was anything about yourself during that entire fiasco that you learned that surprised you.
CONAN O'BRIEN: I think the biggest surprise in that whole thing, or the best thing that I was able to take away from it, was that I come from people-pleasers. We aim to please. We O'Briens, we are nice people where we tend to try and make everyone around us happy. And especially in a work environment, we're very deferential; we just want to work harder than we are expected to work and get less. We're comfortable in that kind of role. It's true. We don't want a lot of attention. It's just the culture. It might be a very Irish Catholic culture, I don't know. But work this hard, don't stick your head out too much, do a really good job, make people happy. And I think I had always been that way throughout my entire career.
I think what was interesting about that moment was it was the first time in my entire career where I was being told "we need you to" -- in that situation -- "we need you to slide over and move The Tonight Show into the next day." And I think because they knew me so well they just said, "Look, he's done everything else, he's going to do this." And I didn't. It was kind of almost a surprise to me as well, but I just decided I don't know what's going to happen; I might be completely through in television, but I can't do this. This doesn't feel right and so I'm not going to do it. And that was, I think, the healthiest personal moment that I took from it.
In terms of other people responding to anything, it was always really important to me -- and it's still important to me -- that people understand that I did not feel entitled to anything. I don't believe in that; I really don't believe in I was promised The Tonight Show and so I get to; it's my right to. There was a bunch of circumstances behind the scenes that made that not work out in that situation and I wasn't happy about it. It was a major disappointment.
We live in a culture of entitlement a lot of times where people, "How dare you? This is my right." And I've always been very clear about saying it's nobody's right to host The Tonight Show. It's absurd. That was an opportunity. It didn't work out for a million different reasons, some known, some unknown. What the hell? Life is short. A lot of people have a lot of problems. Keep moving. And I think that may have been the tone that a bunch of people responded to, was just this feeling of don't pity me because …
WESLEY MORRIS: I don't know. There were two things that came out of it, the first of which was your explanation which was really about The Tonight Show legacy, right? It wasn't framed as you being a great person. It was there's this show that I loved as a kid. I've always wanted to host it. I got to host it, but you guys want to move it to 12:05, which is no longer tonight, it's tomorrow. Then it's Matt Lauer and Ann Curry but really early, which would make it Carson Daly. I don't know. It's not the thing that you wanted to do. So it really ultimately became about the institution of The Tonight Show.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Right, right.
WESLEY MORRIS: Which was also sort of charming and it's a really good case to be made for that. And then there's the embargo which happened, and that was the thing that you managed to turn into great comedy, which was the thing where you couldn't be on television.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Right, for a period of time, yeah.
WESLEY MORRIS: Which sort of made people mad and sympathetic to you. Can you talk about the process to sort of exploit that?
CONAN O'BRIEN: Again, all the best things are accidents. We finished the last Tonight Show and at the spur of the moment we ended up doing a live jam. I said those final words and then I went over to the performance area and I jammed with Will Ferrell, his very pregnant wife who gave birth a few hours later [laughter], and then these amazing guitarists, Beck, we had ZZ Top. It was this fantastic jam band, and we sang Free Bird. And it was just this very silly, jubilant Viking funeral for the show, which felt like it's my tone. It's silly, it's an up note; it's not a down note, and it's saying this is absurd and funny, and we get a minute left of this Tonight Show. Let's really have fun with it.
So we did that. It was over. I love playing music. My producer was standing off to the side and I said, "I'm not allowed to perform comedy on television or the radio; I'm not allowed to do this or that. Am I allowed to perform live?" And he said, "Yeah, I think so." I said, "I think all I want to do is just put on a fake mustache and play in different rockabilly bands in nightclubs for a couple of months, just as a weird Andy Kaufman thing that I would do." [laughter] And he said, "Sure, whatever. That's pathetic." [laughter] But I thought that's what I want to do, and then what happened is he mentioned it to my agent, who happened to work at Endeavor, which just happened to merge with a company that did live performances. And someone punched into a computer and said, "If you went out on the road, you should bring a real band with you and you could sell out across the country." We thought, that's kind of interesting, like as performance art, to just go across the country.
It takes you back to that kid who's trying to tap dance in 1978. I've always been out of time. I've always been trying to get back to vaudeville. I've always wanted to be a vaudevillian. And so this was my chance to actually tour vaudeville theaters across the country and do a song-and-dance and comedy revue. And so I did it, and there was a whole grassroots movement behind it. We thought we have to keep this pure, and we had some offers from big corporations, "We'll help underwrite this, but you have to let us have corporate ticket sales for day one." And we said we can't do it, can we just have the money? [laughter] Turns out that's not the way it works.
American Express ended up saying, "We get it, that's cool, all right. We just want to help." And it was great. That might be the single-best, most interesting, fascinating time of my life creatively.
And it was all an accident. It was just one thing following another and the next thing you know I'm playing with Eddie Vedder in front of 5,000 people and thinking, how did any of this happen? He's from Pearl Jam, people. [laughter] Sorry, this didn't go well. I just looked at out a sea of, “What is this Vedder you speak of? [laughter] Tell us more.”
WESLEY MORRIS: But did you feel free? I mean, were you scared?
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, I'm always scared. I think it's good to be scared. Unfortunately, that's what I tell my child when she's crying at night. [laughter] It's good to be scared! [laughter] WESLEY MORRIS: Can't wait to read the great memoir.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, they're already medicated. [laughter] No, I believe in being scared. I don't know, as a writer, you run into people who tell you how much they love writing.
WESLEY MORRIS: Yeah.
CONAN O'BRIEN: And they, "Oh, I just love writing."
WESLEY MORRIS: I don't know who those people are.
CONAN O'BRIEN: And I think, I don't want to read what you write. I have no interest, it can't be good. Whenever someone tells me that the act of being out in front of people and performing is exhilarating; the preparation, the before part is not. And I think that should never change. So I think it's good to be scared. I think it's good to be doubting yourself. I think it's good to constantly be holding things up to the light and saying, “Is this any good? Does this work?” And unfortunately, it's also good to fail which is very hard to explain in this culture to people. [One person applauds] Wow, you just exposed yourself. [laughter] The person over there in rags. [laughter] Finally!
WESLEY MORRIS: It's true. Initially, I wanted to start by talking about this because we're in the JFK Library, but it's as good a time as any to talk about it now. Which is something that I'd read that you talked to my colleague, Mark Shanahan, maybe yesterday, and one of the things you discussed with him was this sort of Irish pride that you have. Growing up in the sort of JFK era, or around that time, and how you lived in a household that had the full Irish American experience. Your grandmother was not well-to-do. She came over and …
CONAN O'BRIEN: She actually had been born here. I had said that a great experience for me was my mother's mother lived with us for a period of time after my grandfather passed away. And she lived well into, I think into her late 90s. I think she had been born in 1890, so she had had the full experience of witnessing firsthand discrimination against Irish Catholics. When you think about someone who's born at that time, you think about what that generation saw. She was born in a world of ice wagons being pulled by horses and Irish Catholics being discriminated against, and she dies 20 some odd years after President Kennedy and there's a Space Shuttle. That's an outstanding lifetime, to see all of that happen.
It's very interesting when you read history and you think about history -- and I'm a real history buff -- I'm always struck by how things weren't that long ago. I work with a lot of young people who think that the Reagan Administration was 50 years ago. It may as well be to them. Time has sped up so much in the digital age that things that happen 15 years ago seem like 100 years ago. I think that's a byproduct of the digital age we're in, is people's attention spans are so short that suddenly it's like, "Tell us more of this Jimmy Carter that you speak of." Well, okay, they don't know which can be a little frightening at times.
But you look at the transformation that happened in 1960 and what an issue John F. Kennedy's Catholicism was when he was running for President, and today people just think that's absurd. But I remember my grandmother, I'd be going off to school at the Michael Driscoll School and it's this incredibly liberal school system and one of the best school systems in the United States – integrated -- they're constantly hypersensitive to everyone's ethnicity and background and discussing it constantly, getting you comfortable. I'm headed off to school and my grandmother said to me, "Well, it's St. Patrick's Day, so be ready." And I said, "Be ready for what?" And she said, "The Protestants are all going to taunt you at school." She said, "They're going to put chalk in your milk." [laughter] Just then my African American friend with a giant afro shows up. It was a crazy experience.
That was her experience, that on St. Patrick's Day you could get teased. I had friends that were from Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis that went to our high school. That's how diverse and integrated everything was. But I didn't take it for granted because my grandmother gave me that experience; she gave me that sort of snapshot into how things changed a lot. I never took it for granted that this was something that had always been this good for us.
WESLEY MORRIS: I read that and I just thought about my grandmother and the fact that she still can't believe that there's a Negro in the White House. She's still beside herself. I just found that very touching, that the idea that you grew up in this house where …
CONAN O'BRIEN: There are these transformative moments in American politics. We're in the midst of one, but I think that was a big moment that everyone could relate to a few years ago. Now, the nice thing about Obama’s election is the byproduct of that is going to be young people who don't think that's such a big deal. Everyone in this room knows, no, that's a huge deal after everything this country's been through. That is still a huge deal, but the byproduct will probably be people, in a good way, thinking that that is not as momentous a change as it really was. Which is probably what we eventually need to get to.
WESLEY MORRIS: It's fascinating. One of the other things that I wanted to talk about was some of the guests you've had on our show. And I think that my personal favorite guest -mostly because you didn't know what to think of her beyond what we were supposed to think of her until she came to visit you -- is Martha Stewart. You've got Andy and you and Andy have your thing, but I feel like you and Martha Stewart have -- I don't know what it is -- it's just really good comedy. I don't know if you really love her and think she's great, but the thing that comes through …
CONAN O'BRIEN: We are lovers. [laughter]
WESLEY MORRIS: It didn't seem kinky to me.
CONAN O'BRIEN: No, it's very kinky and erotic. [laughter]
WESLEY MORRIS: I'm going to have to eat later, so …
CONAN O'BRIEN: She's a terrific … It's the oldest rule in the book: I do best with an authority figure who has some gravitas. That's the best person for me to bounce off of. So I am the silliest and if you think about it, who's better than Martha Stewart? She is one of the biggest brands in the world. She's efficient. It's all about this is how you do it; you do it correctly; you don't make a mistake; this is how it's done and it's perfect and on to the next thing. Then you put her next to me -- and I'm already an ass but around someone like that I become much more of an ass – and, suddenly, I'm going way out of my way to ruin the chiffon cake we're making. And she knows it's comedy but she can't stand it. [laughter] She just can't stand it. So it's fantastic because she knows there are cameras, and she knows that people are there and she knows it's Conan O'Brien. She's always saying, "Well, he's very funny and he's a little bit of a madman, so you have to excuse Conan. Anyway, we're going to make the cake, and it's very important to put it right like that." And I'll go, "You mean like this?" And she'll be like, "No!" [laughter] She can't help it, she just can't help it. And it's so funny and then people laugh; it's funny to see and it's just perfect when someone just reaches over and ruins it.
WESLEY MORRIS: But the thing that's funny is the thing that you were getting at before, which is that it's not mean to her. It's not mean-spirited; you're just being obnoxious and you know, how long until Martha detonates in the segment.
CONAN O'BRIEN: It was a segment we did for the old Late Night Show, where she's taking me through her place in Connecticut, where she makes all the food … WESLEY MORRIS: Turkey Hill.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Exactly. You've never seen anything like it. I mean, no offense, Mom
[laughter], but it's an amazing kitchen. And everything is perfect. At one point, she's showing me all of these spoons in a drawer, and they're all perfectly laid out and she said, "It's important. I have a system." And I can feel my hands trembling, I can't help it. [laughter] And she's says, "These are the soup spoons and they're S, so they're here. And these are the tea spoons but it's a T, so we put them here, and that's number one. And number five goes here." And I just reached over and I went, “Blababababla.” [laughter]
Something inside her died. [laughter] It was absolutely fantastic. And I know that, yeah, nine people came in and spent all night putting it back while Martha slept in her hyperbaric chamber. [laughter] I'm just always looking for people that I bounce off of in that way. Like I say, authority figures are fantastic. I become more of a child, for some reason.
WESLEY MORRIS: Is there somebody else that does that for you?
CONAN O'BRIEN: I'm trying to think. There are lots of people who do that. I'm trying to think off the top of my head. Revered actors when they come on … If someone's revered in certain ways, it can just be funny. I don't revere them probably as much as I should. I'll think of a name in a second. Pauly Shore. [laughter] From Bio-Dome.
WESLEY MORRIS: Revered, yes.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Revered.
WESLEY MORRIS: Is there a difference being on TBS versus being on NBC for you, in terms of maybe how free you feel? Because as a viewer, I notice a difference.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, definitely. What I went through was transformative in a lot of ways. I think one of the other things was it was a reality check. I'm just very grateful to have a television show. If you work in television for a long time, especially in comedy, and you start to get a lot of clicks on the odometer, you can start to feel – it sounds crazy – but you can start to feel like, I've got to go in and do that today. And that just builds up over time, like how gunk builds up in an engine. If you're burning long enough and fast enough and hard enough, you start to build up. It's almost very natural to build up to "oh, I've got to go do that." And I think that starts to creep into your life a little bit.
Plus, over time you can start to feel this institutional weight of things. And I think going through everything I went through just made me release. I really love doing this and now I'm getting to do it. And I think there's a lot of joy that I got to come back to a place where I get to do this; I'm really lucky to get to do it. I don't know how much longer I get to do it, but let's really have fun and try everything we can think of.
WESLEY MORRIS: Do you think it's all clicking now? Not that it wasn't previously, but do you think that …
CONAN O'BRIEN: It just does feel like we went from being … When you're in a big network, institutional system, it can feel like the boat turns more slowly. And we went to a little cigarette boat that zips around and pirouettes. I think with the social media, everything we've done, we're much more agile. We're able to be much more agile than we used to be able to be. I think we're able to respond more the way the media culture exists now. And so, that's all very liberating; it's really fun.
So I'm never someone who will tell you it's all clicking, because I always have that "it could be better." Let's just push and push. It's the thing that I'm always repeating at my show is, we're getting there, we're getting there. They all just laugh at me now because they know they'll come and visit me in a home when I'm in my 90s, and I'll be like, we're getting there! [laughter] They know that that's just my mantra: is that we're getting there, but we're never there.
WESLEY MORRIS: Do you get to watch the other guys?
CONAN O'BRIEN: No. I don't find that helpful to me. And it's also the last thing I want to do when I come home. As I mentioned, I am a history buff. I know Robert Caro was just here. This is how much of a geek I am. When I heard that Robert Caro's book had been finished, but not published yet, I made all these back channel calls. Other people are trying to get into the Playboy Mansion. I made all these calls to get an editor's draft of Robert Caro's book. And it came, this big tablet, and I read it under the covers like it was porn. [laughter]
WESLEY MORRIS: For some people it is porn.
CONAN O'BRIEN: It is; it is for me. So I love that, and when I come home I like to watch a
Frontline piece, or I like to watch a documentary. I like to watch something that's the complete opposite of what I do for a living. That's what recharges my batteries, is watching the tsar's empire crumble in 1917.
And my wife, I always come and she says, "Hey, I've got a 30 Rock saved up; let's watch it. It takes place in 30 Rockefeller Center about an NBC show." [laughter] That's not how I want to spend my time relaxing. I want to see World War II. There are all these channels now that feed my addiction. I want to watch a long documentary about Johnson or whoever. I want to learn more about American history. That's sort of my hobby.
WESLEY MORRIS: I guess this is a fairly reductive question, but do you wish that there are ways that you could integrate those two things more actively? Or do you like keeping them discrete?
CONAN O'BRIEN: I kind of like keeping them discrete. Every now and then I get to do something interesting. A few years ago I was asked to speak alongside an academic about Lincoln's humor. I had done all this reading about Lincoln's speeches and tried to explain what it is that made Lincoln so funny. And so I agreed to do this event. And then they said, okay. And I said, "Where are we going to perform?" They said, "It's in Washington." I said, "That's great." And then they told me it's at Ford's Theatre. [laughter] I got creeped out. And then I thought, I guess it's a theatre. So we did it there and it actually ended up being a great evening of trying to bring his comedy to life, Lincoln's humor to life, and what was it about his writing and his sense of humor that I thought was actually kind of modernist and of our time rather than of his time. So we ended up talking about that, and it was really fun and I got access to getting through the back door of some museums and looking at some documents. And I thought, okay, that's great.
Other than that, I like to leave it to the professionals. I'm aware that I'm an amateur. I like to read, and I like to read history. But there are people that really know this stuff, and they should be up talking to people. Every now and then it just informs my comedy a little bit, but that's about it.
WESLEY MORRIS: One of the things -- as a person who watches something like movies professionally -- you get a lot of movies about history but you get very few movies now where the people making it have some perspective on the history actually that's funny. There are very few good satires, very few good farces; those are all on TV now. And I feel like your sensibility might lend itself with some structure …
CONAN O'BRIEN: It finds its way into the show and we have certain obsessions. But for the most part, I don't consciously try to do that. It's something that's just my hobby, more than anything else. If it ends up coming into the show, it's usually an accident.
WESLEY MORRIS: So I think it's about question time. I'm going to read questions that you guys have given to the Library for Conan. There are a lot.
CONAN O'BRIEN: That says, "Who the hell do you think you are?" [laughter]
WESLEY MORRIS: If that's one of the questions, then … CONAN O'BRIEN: Who do you think you are?
WESLEY MORRIS: I can't read that one, sorry. Okay, how about this one? I grew up watching your show for years and love your sense of funny and comedic timing, exclamation point. Have you ever considered doing a movie or a sitcom?
CONAN O'BRIEN: No. I don't have the temperament for it. I don't think anybody really wants to see it.
WESLEY MORRIS: I don't know if I agree with that, but go on.
CONAN O'BRIEN: No, I burn fast and so I'm actually in the right medium for me, which is we think of something at 3:00 in the afternoon and we tape two hours later and then you see it at 11:00 at night. That's my temperament. If anyone here watched a movie get made, it's just maddening.
WESLEY MORRIS: Okay, then you would die.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, my soul would leave my body. I also don't think that that is what I'm meant to do. I think I've found the right format for me. And me in a sitcom, where I share an apartment with a chimp [laughter]–
WESLEY MORRIS: You are good with animals!
CONAN O'BRIEN: It's in development; that will be on TV.
WESLEY MORRIS: You and Jack Hanna have a thing.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, we're good.
WESLEY MORRIS: Okay, so Conan, please comment about President Kennedy's wit and his ability to make people laugh. Thank you.
CONAN O'BRIEN: That's very presumptuous, the thank you. [laughter] It will be done; in advance I thank you. Now do as I say. I think about this a lot. I really think that he is up there with Lincoln as one of the funniest American presidents we've ever had.
WESLEY MORRIS: I think, by the way, most people, you're blowing some minds right now. Do we all know that Lincoln's funny?
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, Lincoln's really funny. We can't go into it now. I'm doing something at the Lincoln Library next week. [laughter] I haven't got a lot of time here.
I think Kennedy's truly one of the most naturally funny presidents that we've had, and we have not had a lot. We do not tend to elect funny people. Now we have a media-savvy culture, so Presidents are getting better at coming across as funny when they need to, but I don't think it comes from a natural place.
Everything I know about John F. Kennedy is that he was naturally quite funny throughout his life. But he also experienced a lot of problems in his youth with his health. You talk about a defense mechanism. I think he almost died many times as a young man of different diseases and different ailments. And he was very sick, and that was something that he learned at a very young age, too; I always thought that that probably sharpened his sense of irony.
He'd been in World War II. He had experienced first-hand how screwed up things can be in the military and in the navy, and I think he learned his ironic sense of humor; it came by him naturally, but he also developed it through experiencing a lot of these hardships. It made him see the world, I think, in a very … He had an ironic, amused, in some thought, almost detached wit about how screwy the world can be, which I think is invaluable as an American president. I don't ever get the sense that he took himself that seriously in a good way. He was immune to that a little bit in the way I think some American presidents haven't been. He was able to be a little detached from that and see everything as being somewhat humorous.
WESLEY MORRIS: Then there's the opposite where everything is kind of funny with some presidents.
CONAN O'BRIEN: In what way?
WESLEY MORRIS: Well, I'm thinking of a specific person. Whatever. We'll just move on to the next question. Because then it just turns into a different conversation.
CONAN O'BRIEN: You mean unintentionally funny?
WESLEY MORRIS: Yes.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Okay. We'll leave it alone. [laughter]
WESLEY MORRIS: So what are your views on the intersection of comedy and politics. Is The Daily Show good for the country?
CONAN O'BRIEN: I think The Daily Show and Colbert, those guys are extremely talented and funny.
WESLEY MORRIS: You had a little mock thing with them.
CONAN O'BRIEN: I had a mock feud with them during the writers’ strike where we all ended up beating each other up. They're extremely good and very good for the country, because they're intelligent. Whenever someone intelligent is doing comedy that's popular, I believe that that's good for the country. And what Colbert is doing right now with the Super PACs I think is brilliant. He's such a fun person to watch. The times I've gotten together with him, it almost feels like, yeah, he could have been another brother in my family. He's very physically funny and silly and would have fit right in.
So yeah, I think it's very good for the country. Everyone's got a different strength. I've always gone in sort of this more – some critics like to say – almost like a Dada streak. I like to comment on politics comedicly, but it is not my life blood. It's not in my bone marrow. I think we do it, and I do when it strikes me as funny. But we also do a lot of comedy that is very silly and doesn't really have much to do with anything. and probably is of no benefit to this country.
I've always said to people, if you're getting a message from my show, you're wrong. [laughter] There's no message to my comedy. We're here to amuse.
WESLEY MORRIS: Okay, that's fair. This is a Brookline alumni question. What's your favorite high school memory? That's from Jason who graduated in 1996.
CONAN O'BRIEN: He's a kid. Let's see, my favorite high school memory would be .. It might be that I got to do the – this just in!
WESLEY MORRIS: Breaking news at JFK Library!
CONAN O'BRIEN: I got to be in the school talent show my senior year. I got to emcee it and my co-emcee was the school's janitor. [laughter] I don't remember even how that happened. But that was my introduction to show business, was emceeing the senior show and I have an old black-and-white photograph of it. I have no memory of it, but it looks to be the lamest routine in the history of show business, where the janitor had this big beard and I'm made up to look like a ventriloquist's dummy, and I'm sitting on his lap and we're doing a bit that looks absolutely dreadful. I remember that being just a big moment for me.
WESLEY MORRIS: Who is the best comic we don't know about and why aren't they famous yet?
CONAN O'BRIEN: Every time I say that it turns out they're really well known. I've said that about Louis C. K. years ago.
WESLEY MORRIS: You said that years ago. That didn't really happen.
CONAN O'BRIEN: It happened because I said it.
WESLEY MORRIS: Yes. [laughter]
CONAN O'BRIEN: Welcome to delusion theatre. I'm trying to think. Pete Holmes is really great. Right, Sona? Pete Holmes is someone we're working with right now, who's a very talented comedian. I think he's starting to become well known. He's a very good comic, so I would put Pete Holmes in that category. I'll stick with him for now. I was going to say someone else, but I don't like that guy. [laughter]
WESLEY MORRIS: Poor guy.
CONAN O'BRIEN: He'll be fine. He'll do very well.
WESLEY MORRIS: I should actually remove the ones that I've asked.
CONAN O'BRIEN: It looks like there's one word per.
WESLEY MORRIS: You should see some of these.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Oh, my god, that's a … WESLEY MORRIS: That's a short story.
CONAN O'BRIEN: That's a proclamation of some kind.
WESLEY MORRIS: What is your opinion of the homogenization of network television to "play to the Midwest/Middle America?" That's from Mary Ellen Walsh from Weymouth.
CONAN O'BRIEN: I don't really think that's the case these days. I mean you could say television used to be more homogenous because there were only three networks. So I think it's less homogenous now. I think there's so much on television. There's so much variety and there are so many people playing to certain niches that I think it's the least homogenous television's ever been. The fact is it's art meets commerce, so there's always going to be an attempt to get the most people under the tent. You can't fault networks for doing that.
WESLEY MORRIS: Are you thinking about an audience when you do the show?
CONAN O'BRIEN: No, I don't think about it at all. To me that's an abstraction.
WESLEY MORRIS: Is the difference maybe between TBS and NBC …
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yes, there's less of that "it would be really good if you could," but I've never even let that sway me too much. I do my thing my way. That's the only thing I know how to do. I don't know how to do it another way, frankly, and so I'd like to pretend that it was my high sense of moral purpose, but it's not; again, it's just that this is what strikes me as funny. This is the way I like to do it. This is how I know how to do it. I don't know how to do it any other way. So these are the people I find interesting. This is the kind of show I want to do. So if that becomes untenable and there's no place to do it, it's time to learn something else.
WESLEY MORRIS: But you also don't strike me as necessarily a sort of tsar-like figure. If I disagreed with you about the direction of a particular section or something was going … CONAN O'BRIEN: I'd crush you. [laughter] I'd crush you like a bug.
WESLEY MORRIS: No, but you'd be open to the possibility.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah. I like to collaborate. But I'm also going to be honest. I have some people that work with me here. I'm strong-willed, and when I see things a certain way and I think it's the right way to do it, it's all I can do to just … People are saying dissenting things when I see things a certain way, I become a little like Stalin in my economic policies. [laughter] I believe in collectivizing grain. Other than that, I'm quite kind.
WESLEY MORRIS: So we have time to take some questions from people who've left them on Twitter. There's a screen that's coming down, look out.
CONAN O'BRIEN: I wasn't told about this. This is like something in a James Bond lair.
WESLEY MORRIS: How about you pick some of these?
CONAN O'BRIEN: The first I can see is what do you see as a celeb's role in political activism? Prolific like Clooney, reserved or something in between? From Kevin Slane, @kslane. [laughter] And there is his photo that he's chosen.
WESLEY MORRIS: You guys can't see the photo.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Oh, you can't see the photo.
WESLEY MORRIS: He's having a great time.
CONAN O'BRIEN: He's having a great time in this photo. He's just coming off the slopes and he's high, and it's all good. [laughter]
WESLEY MORRIS: I think he's wearing a colander.
CONAN O'BRIEN: He thinks he's skied, but he didn't ski. [laughter] I'm not a big believer. Contrary to being here, I'm not someone who is comfortable being a big activist. I've never felt like I was elected to anything. And I'm always, for myself, a little wary of that. As a fan of 19th century history, I know that back in the 19th century actors and comedians, we were treated as like second class citizens and I think we should go back to that time. I really do sometimes think we've elevated … We're asking Khloe Kardashian about the euro. [laughter]
WESLEY MORRIS: Well, she spends a lot of them. I mean, she's entitled.
CONAN O'BRIEN: It's just ridiculous. There's a reverence for what celebrities think. Whenever there's a tragedy of some kind in the nation or something horrible happens, sometimes I've been at events where someone says, "Can you tell us, define courage for us." And I think, don't ask me. I have not earned the right to answer that question. And there are these sections now in Us Magazine, and all these different magazines where people tweet about a national crisis.
WESLEY MORRIS: Conan, give us your thoughts about the tsunami!
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, exactly. Snooki tells us what should happen with TARP.
WESLEY MORRIS: TARP for her is a hair gel, isn't it?
CONAN O'BRIEN: I become despondent when that happens. I'm much more comfortable one-to-one or in a room like this talking to people and telling them at least what my experience was like, if they're interested. But when it gets much beyond that -- "and I'm going to get out there and I'm going to raise awareness on this issue" -- I've never been quite comfortable with it.
Maybe I just haven't found the right issue, but I haven't been comfortable with it.
WESLEY MORRIS: Is there a guest you haven't had on for somewhat similar philosophical reasons? Is there somebody that you just don't want to deal with?
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yes.
WESLEY MORRIS: Or you've had them on and after things went the way they did you said never again.
CONAN O'BRIEN: I'm not being cagey.
WESLEY MORRIS: You needn't name them, I'm just wondering.
CONAN O'BRIEN: No, I think it's important to name. [laughter] There are people who are very self-serious. There's an attitude sometimes where a guest comes out and acts like, "Well, I suppose this is what I'm supposed to do. Go at it, you clown." [laughter] And they roll their eyes a lot and a lot of, "yes, well."
WESLEY MORRIS: At you?
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, it's an aura that's coming off of them and I have no patience for it. I think, well, why did you come? They have a little bit of a feeling of "I don't do this" and they're lowering themselves to be part of this farce, but I suppose this is what people do." So there are people like that, the segment's over and I say, please, I just never want to see them again. But for the most part, I get along with people and I can try and make it work.
WESLEY MORRIS: I've seen the sort of discomfort that you've had with some people who
I won't name, but you can feel it and I don't recall ever seeing that person back on the show on either network.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, or alive. [laughter] WESLEY MORRIS: Stalin speaks!
CONAN O'BRIEN: After the show I'm just always like, get rid of them! [laughter] This isn't a cat, by the way. I'll leave it at that. I don't know, you need the right conditions. These are a lot of variables. There's the right kind of guest. There is how's the crowd today? What happened in the news? Sometimes they all line up. It doesn't happen often, but when everything lines up it's magical, and you're getting this taste of a drug that you'll do anything to get that taste again. That's the secret of these shows. You keep fighting back to see if you can get all nine tumblers to come up on the bell, and then you're just ecstatic. And sometimes you get close, but no, you just missed out.
But yeah, I'm in the life-is-too-short category now. I used to be willing to pretty much do anything and try and make anything work. And then you get to a point where you've been through a lot, you've been doing it for a long time and you think, I don't think I'm going to win having this person on. It's not going to be so much fun. This person has a huge ego, this person's wearing sunglasses during the interview.
WESLEY MORRIS: This person is sitting like this.
CONAN O'BRIEN: We're talking about Madeline Albright. [laughter] She's impossible, an impossible woman, and yeah, they just have that attitude and you just think, I just don't want to do it anymore.
WESLEY MORRIS: You don't have to deal with it, because it's your show.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Exactly.
WESLEY MORRIS: Let's do another Twitter question. This is somewhat related to what you had mentioned earlier. Comedy aside, how would you convince the youth of today – I'm rewriting it – to not be cynical about politics?
CONAN O'BRIEN: I think cynicism comes a lot from people thinking they have no voice. So you retreat to cynicism when you think, "Nothing's going to change if I get involved, and the whole thing's rigged." And I think that was, going back to really the reason that we're here, what I think President Kennedy was so brilliant at. I think you look at the political landscape leading up to his presidency and, really, the biggest change overnight was that he very much inspired people.
People talk a lot about it now and it's become so famous and it's been talked about so much that it can almost start to sound trite. But at the time, I do think that his wit and his ability to inspire young people was something that was markedly different. I mean, he's coming out of what many people now think of as this very staid Eisenhower culture, and then suddenly there's this very young President and he is telling people, "You need to get involved." There's the Peace Corps and there's his famous Inaugural Address. And he's telling people that it's really up to them, and I think that is electrifying.
So I think the biggest way for people not to be cynical is to convince them, which is true, that being involved actually does make a difference. Look at the world we have now where Mark Zuckerberg changed our culture. It hasn't even been ten years yet, and he completely changed the culture literally almost overnight.
And I'm always telling people that work for me, you would be shocked at how much older people don't know. We don't really know what we're doing. And I tell them, when you watch us working on the show, we've got some knowledge from having done this a couple thousand times, and we're working hard. But up to the last second, I'm trying jokes out on the 20-, 21-year-old interns that work on the show and saying, “Does this make sense to you? Do you think this is good?” I'm always looking for the answer. And I'm always telling them, I might be working for you in five years. That's the world we live in right now. The media culture's changing so rapidly, anybody in this room, a 19-year-old could be running the world in ten years or have revolutionized the way we experience media.
So it's a very volatile, but also really exciting time. I think the greatest weapon against cynicism is to convince young people, "It's amazing what you can do, what you can accomplish if you get involved." Being detached and cynical is a defense mechanism. It's a lot easier to do that than to try. So why not? Why not be cynical? It's easy.
WESLEY MORRIS: You have this really amazing connection to young people. I remember being really excited when your NBC show started. I was a freshman and it was this thing that we all had to go see what this guy Conan O'Brien was going to be like. It started in college for me. I continued to watch the show; it's a gateway drug to nighttime television.
CONAN O'BRIEN: That's how we designed it, yeah.
WESLEY MORRIS: But you have managed to be sort of the young person's late night person. A lot of people support you. A lot of young people are huge fans of yours, they support you in ways that you don't see people supporting Letterman. You also are somewhat scandal-free.
CONAN O'BRIEN: So far.
WESLEY MORRIS: Yes. Don't do anything to screw that up.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Oh, it happened. [laughter] You just don't know about it.
WESLEY MORRIS: There are some journalists in this room who will dig that up. But I think it's sort of the power you have with young people and the sort of relationship that you have. I mean, part of it is social media but it existed before there was Twitter.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, I think the thing a lot of people respond to is, again, I'm not trying to sell anybody anything in a way. I've always been very clear, this is who I am. These are the flaws. That didn't go so well. In the show, if something doesn't work, I'm the first one on the show to tell you it didn't work and maybe to go on at length about how it didn't work.
There's not an attempt to convince people and market to them. I think young people are extremely sensitive to being marketed to, or conned, or sold on something. They've always been intelligent. They're hyperintelligent about someone older than they are trying to convince them of something.
Rule number one is just be yourself. And that's actually the first thing, when I got the Late Night Show -- I bring them up now because they just did this great documentary about Johnny Carson -- one of the first people I talked to was Johnny Carson and he said, "Just be yourself." He said "It's the only way it can work." He didn't say it would work, because he's being honest; he didn't know me. You might be yourself and it would be terrible. But he said, "Be yourself, it's the only way." There's an honesty to that. I do think that that's a little bit timeless.
When you're putting on a persona … There are a lot of people in television that have a persona that is almost the exact opposite of who they really are. And again, I'm not going to name names, but there are people that are just pushing on you this idea that they're really happy and they're great and they're super nice, and they're not. What I've always been interested in is the shortest amount of distance between who I really am and what people see. I think it's impossible to have people see the exact real you, and they probably shouldn't, but this is pretty close. I think there's a sense that maybe people think, "At least he's being honest. That show wasn't great, and that didn't go that wall, but he sort of made fun of himself and was honest about the fact that it didn't go well.” Everything that happened two years ago, whatever anybody thought of it, it was honest. This is what happened, and this is how I reacted day to day to day, and this is where I went. I think it was a reaction to that. So I think there's something about not trying to project something fake to people.
WESLEY MORRIS: Going back to the Tonight Show situation, what did you hope to do with that show that was either …
CONAN O'BRIEN: Keep it for a while. [laughter] This is a true story. I have an elliptical machine in my house, because it helps me calm down to work out. The whole Tonight Show thing happens, and then I go on this tour and then I come back from the tour and then we're going to make this new show with TBS, and my daughter … I never really talked to my kids about what was happening; they just knew this crazy stuff is happening, but it's all fine, it's all good. And I'm working out on my little elliptical machine and my daughter, Neve, who at the time was seven, wandered into my room, and I'm on my elliptical machine and I'm going to start the TBS show in about three weeks. She came in and said, "Daddy?" And I said, "Yeah?" And she said, "Are you starting a new show?" And I said, "Yeah, I'm starting a new show in about three weeks." And she's looking at me, I'm on the machine, and she said, "Could you try and keep this one longer than the last one?" [laughter]
Get out of here! So she's getting her allowance back in nine years. But it's just this great honest moment where it was like, yeah, I'm going to really try. Like I say, all TV shows, even if you've been doing them forever, are a work in progress. You get a show. You start. You have your problems. You start working through them. And I always thought, I won't really know because it was a process that was interrupted, but we'll do it here, we'll do it on TBS, so we'll find it here.
WESLEY MORRIS: So the screen does move. How important do you think your social media team has been to your success?
CONAN O'BRIEN: It's been huge. I have great people. I found social media as a necessity.
I'm kind of a Luddite; I'm not good with …
WESLEY MORRIS: Do you remember the day someone walked up to you and said Twitter?
CONAN O'BRIEN: I remember exactly what happened. We were thinking about launching this tour and I was off the air and I was legally prohibited from television, radio, and these different media things. Someone said, "You should go on Twitter." And I said, "I don't know, I don't want to go on Twitter." Then I started thinking about it and I started looking into it. The first thing we did was find out legally, can I go on Twitter. Now, trust me, lawyers will put that in. But this was such a new world that we were in, that they hadn't prohibited Twitter. It wasn't in there. It was like you imagine yourself being locked in a tower and there's no other way out except you find a little crack and you can slip a note through it. It was the one way I could talk to people. I realized it's just a joke-writing exercise. It's actually a very good exercise. You get so many characters. You can't go beyond that. And if you can't say something funny -- and it's like writing a haiku -- if you can't do it in that form, it's a great discipline. Jokes probably shouldn't be longer than that. So it forced me … How many characters is it?
WESLEY MORRIS: 160.
CONAN O'BRIEN: I'm constantly writing something, and then someone on my team will be like, "That's one character too many." Ugh! But then you realize a way to shorten it and it's shortening it and shortening it and shortening it. It's actually why I believe the one person whose speeches endure more than anybody is Lincoln. Everyone else in his era was verbose. Famously, the guy who spoke before Lincoln at Gettysburg spoke for four hours, and everybody was just melting into their beards. And then Lincoln gets up and gives the Gettsyburg Address. I defy anyone to find an extra word in there. He just boiled things down and had a little bit of a run and then a short phrase that just punctuates it and is haunting.
So I actually think it's crazy. I think people are going to write these really prophetic things on Twitter, because it's going to force them to be economical. Its going to force them to say what you want in a very … It's like the same rule for everybody. It's very democratic.
WESLEY MORRIS: So you obviously embrace it. Is everything that I get on my Twitter stream from you?
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, they're all from me. What I do is I talk to the writers about who's got funny ideas? Because it is every day so I'd be lying if I said every single thing that I come up with was my idea. Because it's not. So I get help writing them. I work with really funny, creative people. But I write a lot of them. I help craft the tone of it because it's got to be me. It can't sound like somebody else.
WESLEY MORRIS: Oh, they sound like you.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Everyone's wondering how is TV, and I talked about this a little bit yesterday at this cable convention, but it's worth repeating. Everyone's wondering how TV and this social media is going to work together and does it work together. And here's an example of when it really worked together:
About a month ago, Will Ferrell called me up and said, "I want to announce that I'm doing Anchorman 2. Can I come on your show as Ron Burgundy and interrupt the show and announce that I'm making a new movie?" And I said no. [laughter] I said, "That would be fantastic." So we worked it out and then we decided old school television is you don't give anything anyway. You say, "Turn in to Conan for your special surprise at 11:00." That's not the way the media works anymore. It has completely changed.
So what we did was we put together these pictures of me with Will as Ron Burgundy and we tweeted to the 5.something million people that we have, and put it on Facebook for all the people we have there, that look who is coming to my show tonight and it's me with Ron Burgundy. We started to drive this huge wave of interest through social media that came back around and created a wave that gave us the highest rating that we had had at that point for a year on the Conan Show, which then generates more interest on the social networks.
So it is like a biosphere where everything is working together. It doesn't happen that often, but I got a glimpse of "this is the future." Everyone's on social media and that's maybe driving them to an event over here. They see that, that creates a number of viewers for that show but then that feeds into other social media sites.
WESLEY MORRIS: Can I tell you the downside of that?
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah.
WESLEY MORRIS: There was so much Ron Burgundy-ness during that period, I thought Ron Burgundy had died. I'm like, oh, wait, he's not even real! So it was so saturated that I actually didn't know what was going on.
CONAN O'BRIEN: That's the other thing, too. It's a culture where people go from "I'm interested" to "I'm sick of it" in about eight seconds. So that's the downside.
WESLEY MORRIS: It got me to the show though, I'll say that. Did you know marrying Scott and David on your show prompted POTUS to support marriage equality?
CONAN O'BRIEN: No. I don't think it did, obviously. That's just another thing that happened accidentally We had two people, someone who works for me on the show, Scott Cronick, was intending -- while we were in New York because it's legal there -- to marry his partner and then someone said, "Conan, you can go online and you can marry them if you want to do that." And we just looked into it, and I was able to go online and get the ministerial certificate and I was able to go on a neighboring site and become a Jedi Knight [laughter] and get a dental degree. It's scary. In about 20 minutes, I was the most learned man in the world.
But we did that and I actually really liked it because it was a real thing, and it meant a lot to Scott and to his partner. We did it in a real way. We didn't do it in a comedic way and it was something that they wanted to do. So I thought that was really nice. It didn't come from an activist spirit, it didn't come from … Again, the best things just happen. They just happen because life takes you that way.
WESLEY MORRIS: But isn't that like a real good example of what we were talking about before, this organic idea of the way politics can kind of work in comedy. It is readable as a political act, but the nature of it, from your standpoint, was just humanist.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, but I think there's a place we're getting to in our country where things are so polarized. We've always been a polarized country; it seems to have gotten to an extreme right now. But you do think that people seem to be able to tell when something comes from a real place, not "I need to say this in order to fit into this party or that party." People seem to know the difference, and they seem to accept it. Eventually, that's how most change happens. It's not Hollywood actors or comedians making change, it's individual human beings, organically coming to a place and taking a leap of faith. That's what gets us there. It's not someone from a movie telling us what we should do.
WESLEY MORRIS: You mean Chuck and Larry, their big wedding, that Adam Sandler … CONAN O'BRIEN: Oh, that yes, I'm sure that made a huge influence.
WESLEY MORRIS: Did you get any feedback?
CONAN O'BRIEN: Yeah, we had a lot of positive feedback.
WESLEY MORRIS: Was there any feedback that surprised you?
CONAN O'BRIEN: No, I was more surprised. There was more of just an acceptance, I think. And not that I was exposed to that much criticism from people who wouldn't like that, but it did feel like this country's been moving that way for quite a while. Obviously, the big debate now is whether this is something that people nationally want to make an issue, and how should this be treated constitutionally. But I think that was just a moment. That was a moment with real people. And it was I think accepted that way.
WESLEY MORRIS: Have you come to regret the level of candor and honesty on display in the documentary Conan O'Brien Can't Stop?
CONAN O'BRIEN: No. That was always the intention. When I met with the director he said, "I don't want to make Rattle and Hum. I don't want to make anything that deifies." I was like, "Neither do I, let's just …
WESLEY MORRIS: You went in the opposite direction, actually.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Oh, yeah. He actually edited it to show much more fatigue, more exhaustion. He only used the moments when I'm at my most tired, most exhausted. But I think people need to know that this is how hard it is. There's a lot of work and the theme of that movie, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, is that I cannot. I am constantly pushing myself and pushing myself and then complaining to people around me that I'm being pushed too hard. And then when people around me say, "Well, do you want to stop?" I snap at them and say, "How dare you suggest I stop?" So you get a nice insight.
Psychiatrists should study it. It's an interesting look at someone who's resenting how hard they're working when no one's making them work that hard. It's all coming from within, and ultimately they blame their parents. [laughter] I'm glad you're in the front row for that.
WESLEY MORRIS: So we have to wrap up. But I've been given a request in closing. You sort of did it a little bit earlier, but someone wants you to do your JFK impersonation.
CONAN O'BRIEN: It's funny. It's really not a JFK impression. I used to do, when I worked on The Simpsons, there's a Mayor Quimby who's clearly a Kennedy. And I noticed that whenever I would go into that on the show, I'll tell a joke, and when it does particularly well and the crowd's cheering, I just start to go like, "We can do bettah." And they start cheering more and it became this thing. I think it was a whole generation that thought that it came from me doing Mayor Quimby, which is a Simpsons thing, and it always worked on the tour and it was something that just morphed.
There was a very, very silly piece that I did on stage years ago, where I played Ted Kennedy as a baby. [laughter] I did this in my 20s, and literally the lights would come up on stage and it was the silliest, dumbest thing ever. I'd be wearing a diaper and a bonnet, on my back, and I'd be going, "Dep, dep, dep, dep, dep, dep, dep." [laughter] And then I'd stop for a second and everyone would wait, and then I'd go, "Dep, dep, dep, dep." [laughter] And it was so ridiculous and you just got me uninvited here. [laughter] Caroline's going to, "What did he close with?" You don't want to know. "Dep, dep, dep, dep." But it's just silly.
WESLEY MORRIS: Thank you, guys, for coming. Thank you, Conan.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Thanks for coming out, everybody! [applause] Thank you for doing this.
WESLEY MORRIS: Of course.
CONAN O'BRIEN: Great job.