Surprising Facts About Conan O’Brien

by Amy and Nancy Harrington

Jay Leno passes his “Tonight Show” baton to Conan O’Brien this week, and we couldn’t be happier. We’ll miss Letterman (sorry, Dave — if we’re forced to choose, we pick Conan) and we won’t miss Leno (because he’s just moving to earlier time slot… if we decide to watch). And so in anticipation of Conan’s first show, we take a look at some of our favorite things about Conan and a few surprising facts we didn’t know.

He Stole from a Superhero

Back in 1984, when Conan was a student at Harvard and president of the Harvard Lampoon, Burt Ward (yes, the TV “Batman’s” Robin) came to the school to give a lecture, cape in hand. He arrived on campus to be greeted by “security guards” sent to “safeguard the costume.” But Burt realized he’d been taken for a ride when those same security guards burst into the middle of his speech, dimmed the lights, and stole the costume. Conan (the heist’s ringleader) held hostage negotiations with the actor the following day, and the Boy Wonder’s gear was returned unharmed.

He Worked Week to Week at First

Making a virtual unknown the host of his own late-night talk show was a big risk for NBC. Sure, Conan was funny and had written for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons,” but he wasn’t really a stand-up and hadn’t spent a lot of time in front of the camera (aside from an occasional “SNL” walk). What were they thinking? They were thinking, “Lorne Michaels recommended him, and that dude knows talent.” They were also thinking, “Let’s make him renew his contract every few weeks, instead of years. That way, if he stinks we can fire him whenever we want.” Looks like that gamble paid off.

He Took Tap as a Kid

When Conan was in grade school, he decided he wanted to be an entertainer. He approached his parents and told them that he was going to be in show business, so he needed to learn how to tap dance. After a considerable amount of begging, they signed him up with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson protégé Stanley Brown, who taught him how to tap. Wonder if he was the one who helped hone Conan’s “string dance.”

He Dated a “Friend”

Back before either were stars, struggling comedians Conan O’Brien and Lisa Kudrow were an item. They split up when O’Brien left L.A. for New York to begin hosting “Late Night.” It’s rumored that he pined for Kudrow for two years until she married Michel Stern in 1995. Conan met his wife, Liza, in 2000, but he and Kudrow are still “Friends.” Sorry, it was begging to be said.

He Was in a Music Video

In 2005 Conan did a cameo in The White Stripes’ “The Denial Twist” as part of an ongoing friendship and mutual admiration society. They have been on his show numerous times since he met them in a bowling alley in the late ’90s. And in a final farewell, Jack and Meg, who hadn’t played live together in almost two years, reunited on Conan’s last “Late Night” to perform “We’re Going to Be Friends.”

Letterman Supported Him

A week after he was announced as David Letterman’s “Late Night” replacement, Conan appeared on Dave’s show and said people were stopping him on the street and saying, “Hey, look! It’s that guy who doesn’t deserve a show.” Well, Dave thought he did, and he showed his support all the way. Letterman was a guest on one of Conan’s first nights, and Conan appeared on the “Late Show” several times. And back in the days when people didn’t get Conan’s nervous energy, Dave would send over his standby audience to help fill the younger host’s studio. Don’t think they’ll have that problem at “The Tonight Show.”

He Gave Us Triumph

Without Conan, we wouldn’t have one of our favorite puppets of all time. No, not Kermit. Not Grover. Not Lambchop. We’re talking about Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, Robert Smigel’s genius creation that debuted on Conan’s show in 1997. Triumph has insulted the biggest names in entertainment, from Jennifer Lopez to Eminem to every “Star Wars” fanatic that ever lived. If you haven’t seen him talking to “Attack of the Clones” fans, do yourself a favor and check this out. It’s a very funny video…for us to poop on! We keed, we keed.

Conan and the Finnish President: Separated at Birth

Although Conan has no Finnish ancestors, he bears a striking resemblance to Finland’s first female President, Tarja Halonen (also the world’s only red-haired leader). Back in 2005, when Conan learned his show had high ratings in Finland, he attributed this phenomenon to the fact that he looked like Halonen. So what if she was a woman? Conan even supported her in her ’06 re-election campaign, because he enjoyed looking like a world leader. Halonen did win reelection, and we’d like to think Conan had something to do with it, in that Oprah/Obama kind of way.

He Sold His Taurus to Brad Pitt

Conan has been talking about his sweet ride, a green 1992 Ford Taurus SHO, on his show for years, including the time Brad Pitt made him dress in a “Troy” costume and then took the green machine for a spin. He’s tried several times to sell the classic car (once at a high-end auction) to no avail, but finally, on one of his last shows, Pitt came back and bought the car. We’re guessing that was just a skit, but now that Conan’s moving to L.A., he might need a new set of wheels. We hear Ford’s bringing the Taurus back in 2010. Maybe they can give him one in exchange for promotional consideration on “The Tonight Show.” After all, Leno owns more than 185 vehicles. Conan had better get crackin’ if he wants to keep up.

Tune in Monday, June 1 at 11:35pm ET for the maiden voyage of “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.”

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