A study conducted during the 2000 presidential election showed that one out of every 10 Americans get their political news from late night television. That means on NBC for the last 10 years, people have been their political news, views and jokes from NBC’s Conan O’Brien. Earlier Tuesday, Conan joined Buchanan and Press to celebrate his big 10th anniversary.
BILL PRESS, HOST: In the beginning, remember everybody said Conan was going to bomb big time. What happened?
CONAN O’BRIEN, HOST, “LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O’BRIEN”: Well, I did bomb for a little bit. I didn’t disappoint.
PRESS: I remember that too.
O’BRIEN: I remember there was one point early on in the show when I realized there were maybe five things you need for a show to work. You need ratings, you need good critical response, you need support from the network, you need the confidence of the people around you, and you need, you know, self-confidence. And I realized I have none of those five things.
I remember going through the list and realizing nope, nope, nope, nope. But, you know, we got lucky, I’ll be honest. We got very lucky. I could have gone away in the first three months, but I think— I honestly believe NBC didn’t have a replacement ready for me, so they had to leave me there for a little bit. And then by the time they got around to trying to replace me, they realized it had started to gel and I was just lucky.
I mean, I remember there was one point where I heard that if our ratings don’t go up that next week, we were going to get pulled off the air. And our ratings went up. I don’t know why they did. They just did.
PAT BUCHANAN: I think I heard that from some of our people at MSNBC just last week about us.
O’BRIEN: Hang in there.
BUCHANAN: I’m hanging in there. Look...
PRESS: Ten years.
BUCHANAN: But look, 10 years, Conan, it takes more than luck. It’s like being a quarterback in the NFL for 10 years. It takes a lot more. So, congratulations, but let me ask you this... I go back all the way to Jack Paar. Once I was on his show toward the end of his career and I remember Johnny Carson. Now they have you and Leno, Letterman, and all the rest. How is comedy— that night comedy — how has that changed in all those years?
O’BRIEN: I think the biggest change is that when you look at those early shows, if you look at Steve Allen, if you look at Jack Paar, they’re not doing nearly— and even Johnny Carson, there’s not nearly as much produced comedy. The shows were more, I think, genteel. I think they were quieter. It was just a different era. I think these shows respond— in a lot of ways these shows are holding a mirror up to what’s going on in the country. My show premiered you know in the height of the MTV generation where the attention spans are shorter, people want more produced comedy, I think. People are crunching more into an hour of television. And so, I have a great fondness, when I look back at Jack Paar and he’s interviewing Senator John F. Kennedy or Nixon’s on the show playing the piano, I think, “My God, that’s amazing.” I wish almost that our shows could be like that now. But the shows have just changed too much and there’s just also— those shows used to be Charlie Rose, entertain— they combined, you know, whereas now there’s a specific show.
There’s your show if you want to do a certain kind of interview or you can go over to, you know, a daytime show if you want to hit that niche market or you can come on. There are four to choose from. So, I think things have become much more specific in a way.
THE YOUNG AUDIENCE
PRESS: Let me ask you about your audience, because the challenge you’ve got, it seems to me, your average audience, like the 20-year-olds. But you’re 40, about to become a father for the first time, congratulations. So your audience is half the age you are. How do you stay, you know, young and energetic and up with what they’re interested in?
O’BRIEN: You know what’s interesting? Is that when I first got this show I believe “Oh great, now I’m going to get to do a show for my peers.” And when I was on the air for a few months I realized my peers can’t stay up. They have families. They can’t be up at 12:30 at night. And then I started walking down the street and realizing that it was 16, 17, 18, and 19-year-olds that were really responding to what we were doing. I never set out to do that. I don’t believe that you can look for a demographic. I don’t get up in the morning and think “Today I’m really going to nail that 18 to 35 male demographic so that I keep the Lite beer company happy. ”
I get up in the morning and I think what’s the funniest thing we could do? What would make me really laugh? What would really look visually funny because I came from always visual comedy, “The Simpsons,” “Saturday Night Live,” that was my sensibility. And so doing that I never realized it, but that was I think a lot of young people respond to.
BUCHANAN: Let me ask you, I mean you’re a “Harvard Crimson”. You’re a writer yourself. As you say, your audience, you mean you got 17, 18, 19, 20-year-olds. You obviously got writers, you write some of your own jokes, material, but you are really at the intersection of the popular culture and you’re right out on the edge of the culture wars. When some of your writers come to you, they must come to you with some hilarious material or you think up some hilarious material, and how do you decide, is it by instinct, look, that goes over the line, we can’t do that, we got to hold back a little bit on that. How do you decide these things?
O’BRIEN: Right. I’d love to tell you that there’s a great strategy, but it just boils down to common sense. I think that, you know, people asked me a lot after 9/11, well how do you decide what’s going to work? And I say it’s just you go by that same feeling all of us use when you go to a party and you decide what’s over the line, what can I say that’s funny, what’s on the line, what’s over the line, what’s this side of the line? It’s just common sense.
And sometimes our writers think of things and I think, “You know what, it’s really funny, but it’s really mean and I don’t want to do it. It doesn’t feel right.” If I’m uncomfortable looking at it, if I’m uncomfortable presenting it... and having my name on it, I don’t want to do it, and I just go by that.
HIS FAVORITE DEMOCRAT
BUCHANAN: I don’t want to put you on the spot. Those are all good Democrats. They’re out running for office. I want to get into your politics because you are a political force, you and Jay and all the rest are a very powerful force. I’m trying to get at your politics. Tell me the politician or the political leader who is out of office, out of power, that you admired and respected most with the exception, of course, of Nixon.
O’BRIEN: Well, it’s very hard— yes. I’m glad you took Nixon off the table, Pat. I appreciate that.
I’m an Irish Catholic from Brookline, Massachusetts, and you don’t come from that world and not grow up idolizing, you know, John F. Kennedy. I think even with a lot of the revisionism— I know the Dallek book that just came out about, you know, “An Unfinished Life” and you read the Richard Reeves book— there’s a lot of revisionism on John F. Kennedy, but he’s still a compelling figure. And I think compelling to me because even his politics aside, you-the way that he could inspire people. I think that’s why I respond to, you know, to John F. Kennedy as just a historical figure so much because I think even a Republican, even a hardcore Republican who disagreed with some of his core beliefs would have to admit that, all right, “Well, John F. Kennedy was an amazing politician and could inspire people on both sides of the spectrum” and it would be great to have someone like that today when things are so divisive.
POLITICS AS COMEDIC MATERIAL
PRESS: You still make jokes about Bill Clinton and so does Jay and so does David Letterman. Now we got George Bush in the White House. For late night comics, right, is there any material there at all in the Bush White House that you can take advantage of or is it just sort of...
O’BRIEN: No, there is material with George W. Bush... The mother lode was Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Talk show hosts are going to be talking about that the way prospectors talked about the big gold rush of ’49 for 100 years. You know what I mean? That is going to be— I promise you, it will never, ever get better than that. But there is plenty to talk about. I mean, there are plenty of comical characters in that administration. You have to admit that even if you like what they’re doing, obviously, 9/11 and the war in Iraq makes it a little harder, but every day, there’s something coming out of Washington that makes a great monologue joke, and that’s never going to change.
PRESS: But you’ve got to admit that no matter who it is in the White House, no matter who it is that’s running for president today, they all pale in comparison to the big California recall and one of your favorite joke lines and also one of your favorite guests. You’ve got to admit he would be colorful if he became governor of California.
O’BRIEN: No one’s wishing for that more than I am. And it has nothing to do with my political affiliation. When you have a job like mine, you start rooting for, you know-you start rooting for the most improbable things. And I remembered when my-we were watching Leno when Schwarzenegger announced. I was in my writers’ room and all of us were watching and there was just was an electric scene. We jumped in the air and started doing a dance because we knew it doesn’t get better than this. It just doesn’t get better than this.
DO COMEDIANS GO TOO FAR?
BUCHANAN: Today, there is no doubt about it, you got, again, you and Leno and Letterman, it is mockery, it is ridicule. We are laughing at our politicians. We demean them in a way we never, never did. Can you ever again have someone who has sort of the respect and the admiration that we had when we were young for Jack Kennedy? I mean look what you did-look what was done to Dan Quayle, who for my money was an honorable guy, an apparently bright guy, and he did make some blunders, but comedians really ruined him, didn’t they?
O’BRIEN: I don’t believe that late-night comedians can ruin somebody. I believe that people understand it’s humor. The degree of ridicule may not have been the same, but even in John F. Kennedy’s administration, he was listening to himself being lampooned all the time. It’s part of the culture. Comedians had a field day with Ronald Reagan and he’s a revered American president. And so, I don’t believe that late-night comedians can diminish presidents.
I just don’t.
I think people are sophisticated enough to be able to say, this is a person. This is a comedian doing his job and looking at the lighter side or the silly side of this person.
I’d love to think we have that much power, but I don’t think we do.
PRESS: What of laughs we can expect Sunday night. Who is coming back?
O’BRIEN: Andy Richter is making a dramatic return. Will Ferrell, who’s one of the funniest people in the world — he’s going to do a live appearance. And he’s going to do a routine for us. Jack Black, who’s also hilarious, one of the funniest people alive right now is coming back to do a comedy song that takes us through the life of the show. Triumph, the insult comic dog, is going to be there. Nancy Reagan is making an appearance because she’s a big fan of mine. And it’s going to be a great show. A hilarious 90 minutes.
PRESS: Congratulations on a great 10 years. Here’s to 10 more, at least, and we’ll look forward to seeing you-your big special Sunday night. Conan O’Brien, thanks for joining us.
O’BRIEN: Gentlemen, thank you very much. Nice talking to you.