Family & Companions
Because of his witty, self-effacing comedic style, Conan O'Brien rose to the top of late night television fame as host of NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" (1993-2009). Even before landing that high-profile gig, this tall - standing at 6 feet 4 inches - gangly, carrot-topped comic was already revered in certain circles for his writing and producing talents on such comedy stalwarts as "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) and "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1990- ). Despite a shaky "Late Night" start in 1993 - many predicted he would be replaced by year's end and most had no idea who he even was - O'Brien not only persevered, but thrived, thanks to his sharp monologues, outlandish skits and easy rapport with co-host Andy Richter. The host quickly developed a large college-aged following which helped turn O'Brien into a household name. Wider recognition meant more opportunity - after hilariously hosting the 2002 Emmy Awards, he was named to succeed Jay Leno as host of "The Tonight Show," seemingly assuring O'Brien's stature as a late night heavyweight. Sadly, after taking over his dream job, he was forced to step down after his own program's low ratings and NBC's poor scheduling and ineffective management led him to leave the show after only seven months and relocating from New York to Los Angeles. His perceived mistreatment by the network after over 15 years of loyal service made O'Brien the underdog to the perceived villain, "Tonight Show" usurper (part deux), Jay Leno. The January 2010 late night scandal - tagged "Conan-Gate" - ignited the ire of Conan's rabid "I'm with Coco" fanbase, who took to social networking sites and street protests in support of their late night hero, while fellow comics weighed in, mostly in support of O'Brien, whose next move to TBS became one of the hottest topics of the new year. Whatever O'Brien's future held, his legacy of melding together frat-boy foolishness with intelligent, twisted writing remained unparalleled, leaving his late night legacy intact.
Born Apr. 18, 1963 in the Boston suburb of Brookline, MA, O'Brien was the third child of six in his Irish-American family. The son of Dr. Thomas O'Brien, a research physician and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and Ruth Reardon O'Brien, a former lawyer, young O'Brien graduated as valedictorian from Brookline High School and went on to attend Harvard University. As an undergrad at the prestigious institution, he wrote for the school's legendary humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, of which he also served as president during his sophomore and junior years. In 1985, O'Brien graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in American history and literature. Feeling the itch to write comedy, O'Brien moved to Los Angeles with his friend and writing partner Greg Daniels (who would later write and executive produce the American version of "The Office"), where both joined the writing staff of the HBO series, "Not Necessarily the News" (1983-86), for which they wrote regularly for two years. While on the series, O'Brien also found time to perform improv, most notably for the comedy troupe, The Groundlings, alongside future girlfriend, Lisa Kudrow. In 1988, O'Brien's comedic writing talents caught the eye of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) executive producer Lorne Michaels, and he was soon hired on as a writer for the long-running late night sketch show. O'Brien wrote three-and-a-half years worth of "SNL" sketches, penning the popular recurring bits, "Mr. Short-Term Memory," "The Girl Watchers" and sketches featuring Dieter, the androgynous West German talk show host played by Mike Myers. His most notorious "SNL" moment was writing the now infamous nude beach skit where "penis" was uttered 60 times. His efforts paid off when he and his fellow "SNL" writers shared an Emmy Award in 1989 for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy or Variety Series.
Feeling a bit unsatisfied but not sure why, O'Brien left "SNL" in 1991 with no prospects but did write and produce the somewhat infamous television pilot that never was, "Lookwell" (NBC, 1991), which starred Adam West as a former star of a canceled TV cop show who continues to try to solve crimes. The pilot aired that July but was not picked up as a series. Later that year, O'Brien was hired on as a writer and producer for the Fox animated series, "The Simpsons" (FOX, 1989- ). So impressive were his talents, he was soon promoted to supervising producer and worked on the series for two years, never failing to send his fellow writers into hysterics as he acted out comedy bits. During those years, O'Brien penned what many believed to be the best "Simpsons" episode of all time - certainly, it was O'Brien's favorite - "Marge vs. The Monorail." The season four classic was a song-filled take-off on "The Music Man" and featured the guest voices of Phil Hartman as a fast-talking monorail salesman and Leonard Nimoy as a stuffy, enigmatic version of himself.
Around this same time, another opportunity was presented, one that eclipsed O'Brien's success on the two holy grails for comedy writers - "SNL" and "The Simpsons." In April of 1993, he came out of seemingly nowhere to win the coveted hosting slot as David Letterman's successor on NBC's "Late Night" franchise after being handpicked by his former "SNL" boss, Lorne Michaels who, simply put, had seen O'Brien in action during writer's meetings and thought that the kid had the goods. Comic Andy Richter was originally hired on as a writer but became O'Brien's sidekick once producers noticed their very green host was quite obviously nervous on camera. Richter seemed to have a comedic simpatico with O'Brien, while at the same time, managed to calm him while on-air. Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band's drummer, Max Weinberg, was brought on as the show's new Paul Schaffer-esque music director. Though the series first received poor ratings and rumors of cancellation rumbled through the halls of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, O'Brien's wacky and self-deprecating style of comedy eventually caught on - particularly after his idol and predecessor, David Letterman, deigned to make a visit. By 1995, O'Brien was being dubbed "Late Night's King of Cool" by Entertainment Weekly and graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine as the show's staff continued to deliver with sketches like "The Masturbating Bear," "In the Year 2000" and "Pimpbot 5000" - to say nothing of introducing the world to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Over the years, O'Brien and the "Late Night" writing team consistently garnered Emmy and Writer's Guild Award nominations for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy or Variety Series, including two consecutive WGA wins in 2002 and 2003.
With his success in late night television now solidified, a validated O'Brien formed his own production company, Conaco, in 2001 which shared productions credits on "Late Night." During his show's run, O'Brien also appeared as a guest on the series "The Single Guy" (NBC, 1995-97), "Spin City" (ABC, 1996-2002), and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" (FOX, 2002-04). Richter had left the show in 2000, much to a distraught O'Brien who openly cried on-air during Richter's final episode. Fans of the show need not have worried. O'Brien stepped up to the plate, now confident that he could run his ship solo. In 2002, host O'Brien delivered what many considered the Emmy Award's funniest opening monologue in its televised history. Due to his continued critical success and devoted late night fan base, it was announced to much fanfare in 2004 that the now iconic redhead would take over for Jay Leno as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" (1992-2009) upon Leno's retirement from the show in five years. In late 2007, NBC-Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker confirmed the network's commitment to O'Brien after rumors leaked of Leno perhaps having second thoughts about leaving "The Tonight Show." At the same time O'Brien was relishing NBC's continued commitment to him and his gang of merrymakers headquartered at 30 Rock, the comic found himself on the receiving end of a stalking incident, involving of all things, a Catholic priest obsessed by him. The threats, which were publicly leaked, were considered serious enough that the police got involved to ensure his safety.
Then news came that the ever-reticent Leno was gunning for a 10 pm slot as lead-in, yet again, to O'Brien. He was granted the gig, called "The Jay Leno Show," and many saw this as a slap in the face to new "Tonight Show" host. If anyone took offense, nothing was spoken publicly, unlike Leno's earlier skirmishes with the ever vocal and often cranky Letterman. By the time O'Brien bid farewell to "Late Night" and his masturbating bear in early 2009, many fans reacted to his departure from "Late Night" as a kind of death in the family. O'Brien, in his final, somewhat emotional sign-off, assured his viewers he would still be the same "childish goofball" they had grown to love over 16 years. After "SNL" cast member Jimmy Fallon took over "Late Night" to somewhat lackluster reviews, O'Brien took a few months off to relocate and acclimate to his new L.A. life, as well as prepare his new program. By the time "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" premiered to much fanfare on June 1, 2009, fans were ready and willing to say goodbye to Jay and welcome the hipster-doofus and his off-beat comic brilliance to the most envied gig in television history.
Unfortunately, after only a few months on the air, it became apparent that "The Tonight Show" ratings were down with O'Brien at the helm. The biggest news the show made was when O'Brien suffered a concussion after a taped segment gone wrong, in which he ran a marathon with Terri Hatcher and promptly slipped on stage when crossing the finish line, hitting his head hard. He was taken to the hospital immediately after showing signs of memory loss and confusion. He recovered quickly, but the worst was yet to come later that fall when it became apparent to NBC and its affiliates that the Leno 10 pm experiment was an unmitigated disaster. Knowing the end was near, Leno expressed interest in returning to his old gig at 11:30 pm and by January 2010 - after O'Brien's show had had only seven months to find its footing - NBC announced the official cancellation of Leno's program.
What that would mean for "The Tonight Show" host was the subject of much speculation in the media and by outraged fans who felt O'Brien was getting the shaft by his own network and with the help of Leno, in much the same way Letterman had years before. Online chatter leaned predominately toward the O'Brien camp, with NBC boycotts being bandied about. In the end, NBC decreed O'Brien could stay at the network as host of "The Tonight Show," but be bumped back to midnight and still have Leno as a lead-in - perhaps one of the many reasons his own show had suffered in the first place. Or he could leave the network for a better deal, armed with a rumored $25-$50 million payout. Fans waited breathlessly for O'Brien's decision. They did not have to wait long. On January 12, O'Brien released an official statement heard 'round the world, in which he rejected NBC's attempt to move "The Tonight Show" to the post-midnight slot to accommodate Leno's return to late night, stating he could not "participate in what I honestly believe is its ("The Tonight Show") destruction... So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it." Newly named "Coco" fans went ballistic, staging rallies in major cities and creating websites in support of their shafted hero. After two weeks of O'Brien eviscerating Leno and NBC - during which the show more than tripled its ratings and became the ultimate water-cooler topic each morning after - it was announced he had sealed a $45 million deal to leave the show, with the host pocketing $33 million and the staff splitting the remaining $12 million. On January 22, a record number tuned in to watch O'Brien's final show, at the end of which he gave a classy, heartfelt speech in which he thanked NBC, his devoted crew, and his galvanized fans for their support before choking up and leading an all-star band fronted by Will Ferrell in a rendition of "Free Bird."
Because of his contract stipulations with NBC, O'Brien was unable to appear on television for nine months. The always clever comic decided that instead, he would join the social network Twitter, where in a matter of 24 hours, he amassed thousands of followers who collectively hung on his every word. He also announced a national two-month comedy tour called "The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour" which was so popular additional dates had to be added. After weeks of speculation and negotiations with such networks as Fox, O'Brien announced on the eve of his tour in April that he had signed a deal for a new late night program on the basic cable network, TBS. In typical O'Brien fashion, his official statement was steeped in sarcasm: "In three months, I've gone from network television to Twitter to performing live in theaters, and now I'm headed to basic cable. My plan is working perfectly." In May 2010, O'Brien was finally able to speak out on television about what happened, which he did with an appearance on "60 Minutes" (CBS, 1969- ). He described the tumultuous events as "a marriage breaking up suddenly, violently, quickly." O'Brien was quick to point out, however, that he felt no regrets and was doing well. In an ironic twist of fate, he would earn two Emmy Award nominations for his short "Tonight Show" stint; one for Outstanding Comedy, Music or Variety Series, as well as for Outstanding Writing. Although he lost to "The Daily Show," the Leno "Tonight Show" snub was clearly a delight to Conan fans still peeved at his mistreatment.
After nine months of being off the air, O'Brien's new TBS show, "Conan" (2010- ) launched to great fanfare on Nov. 8, 2010. Due to intense curiosity and unparalleled publicity - including a Conan-embossed blimp flying across country and a deluge of humorous promos - "Conan" laid waste to all other late night programs upon its premiere, more than doubling those of a now-reinstated Leno, Letterman and O'Brien's now true rivals, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. Although the ratings dropped off as expected by the end of the show's first week, O'Brien was still scoring the coveted 18-40 year-old demographic. The host himself appeared more at ease than he had in over a year, with a smaller, more intimate set; increased one-on-one interaction with rabid audience members now dressed in red beards and Team Coco T-shirts; and an easy banter with Richter who now sat next to him on the couch as he had during the "Late Night" years. In fact, the show seemed to be channeling "Late Night," with crazy bits and shameless antics, including O'Brien wearing "jeggings" throughout an entire episode on a bet. New fan favorites, including Minty the Candy Cane Who Fell on the Ground and hilarious taped remotes with the TBS censor department and the Warner Bros. animation studios, kept diehard fans of the duo's sophomoric humor relieved and happy that their guy - once co-opted by The Man - was back and in fine form.
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Joined the writing staff of HBO's "Not Necessarily the News"
Hired by producer Lorne Michaels as a writer for "Saturday Night Live" (NBC), earned Emmy nominations for Outstanding Writing from 1989-1991
Joined with SNL writers Bob Odenkirk and Robert Smigel for the improvisational comedy revue "Happy Happy Good Show" in Chicago
Co-wrote and produced (with Robert Smigel) the television pilot "Lookwell" (NBC) starring Adam West; pilot never went to series
Became a writer and supervising producer for "The Simpsons" (FOX)
Suggested by Lorne Michaels to succeed David Letterman as the host of "Late Night"; the show re-titled "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (NBC) aired on September 13, with Andy Richter as his sidekick; earned consecutive Emmy nominations for Outstanding Writing from 1996-2009
Formed his own production company, Conaco
Had cameo in the Todd Solondz-directed, "Storytelling"
Co-wrote and produced the FOX series, "Andy Richter Controls the Universe"
Hosted the 54th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards
Negotiated a new contract with NBC to take over "The Tonight Show" from Jay Leno in 2009
Produced and co-wrote the pilot for the short-lived NBC sitcom, "Andy Barker, P.I."
Aired final episode of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" on February 20
Premiered as host of "The Tonight Show" (NBC) in June of 2009; announced in January 2010 he would leave the show due to what he called "the destruction" of "The Tonight Show" in NBC's attempt to move the show to 12:05 to accommodate the Jay Leno Show at 11:35
After his high-profile exit from NBC, he earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Variety, Music Or Comedy Series for "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien"
Signed a deal for a new late-night program on TBS, the basic-cable network owned by Time Warner; the show "Conan" premiered in November 2010 to huge ratings
Due to O'Brien's settlement with NBC, which forbid him from appearing on television for several months, O'Brien traveled to 30 cities with his live comedy tour entitled, "Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour"