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Inside Conan's Laugh Factory

Once a rookie host given little chance to fill David Letterman's shoes, Conan O'Brien has become a favorite of younger viewers and critics alike. Here's a sample of his 'Late Night' recipe.

January 11, 1998|Jane Hall | Jane Hall is a Times staff writer

NEW YORK — It is three hours before show time on Conan O'Brien's talk program, and the host is meeting with three young producers in an office decorated with a giant plastic pickle (a gift from the writers on the David Letterman show), a voodoo skull sunk into a basketball net and a huge painting of Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed.

"I identify with Lincoln," explains O'Brien, who is red-haired, Harvard-educated and Catholic. "We're both 6 feet 4 inches, we're both manic-depressive, and we're both in charge of a lot of other people's lives." He pauses, noticing one of the doctors in the painting holding a piece of paper behind his back. "You see that guy there? He's waiting for a good moment to present the bill."

The producers are waiting for a good moment to present their notes about one of tonight's guests: Dr. Joyce Brothers. The guests this season on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" have included Sylvester Stallone, Elton John, Sigourney Weaver and other major stars, a reflection of the show's hard-won hip status and success in the ratings. But this week in mid-December, along with Courteney Cox and Helen Hunt on the roster, Dr. Joyce has been booked as a last-minute addition to fill an unexpected vacancy.

"Dr. Joyce wants to talk about penis size--there's a new scientific study on the subject," producer Dan Ferguson tells O'Brien.

"Oh, man," says O'Brien, who is a little shy on the subject of sex and would have preferred a hipper guest. "I guess Dr. Joyce Brothers and Charo are the flight-certification test for getting your license as a talk show host," he jokes.

More than four years after a rocky debut and near-death experiences at the hands of NBC executives who wanted to cancel the show, "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" is flying high. The 34-year-old O'Brien--a former writer for "The Simpsons" and "Saturday Night Live" who had no on-air experience when NBC hired him in 1993 to replace David Letterman in the 12:35 a.m. time slot--is becoming the Letterman of the next generation. College kids flock to O'Brien's World Wide Web site and to his show, which is now attracting nearly as many 18- to 49-year-olds as Letterman did in his last season on NBC, amid greater competition. (Overall this season, O'Brien's show is averaging 2.6 million viewers per night, an increase of 6% from the previous year. CBS' "Late Late Show With Tom Snyder" is averaging 1.6 million.)

And TV critics who once said O'Brien and his writers were too green to succeed are praising their comedy as innovative and funny. Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, who dismissed the O'Brien broadcast as "lifeless and messy" the first season, now calls it his favorite late-night TV show.

O'Brien suffered silently through 3 1/2 years of 13-week renewals by NBC until the network finally signed him to his first multiyear contract (five years for an estimated 2 million annually) last spring.

"That first season, I felt like a premature baby in an incubator," O'Brien says now. "NBC executives kept telling the press we were 'showing growth'--like our birth weight was up 14% and you could see nails growing on the toes. . . . I don't think the show is that different today from when we started. We were doing a lot of the same comedy bits we get credit for now--it just took awhile for things to coalesce."

During four days backstage with "Late Night" at NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters, it becomes clear that building a comedy franchise can be slow, hard slogging. We're not talking manual labor here, folks--more like late nights over stale takeout, and the staff has a good time getting there. But it's five days a week of trying to be funny. And, to paraphrase that great comedy writer T.S. Eliot, between the idea and the reality falls the rewrite.

11:15 a.m. Tuesday: Taping doesn't begin until 5:30 p.m., but Jeff Ross, the producer in charge of "Late Night," is holding a daily meeting with the staff to go over that night's program and the rest of the week.

Courteney Cox, a star of NBC's "Friends," will be making her first appearance on the program. ("She wants to talk about 'Scream 2,' " says booker Paula Davis.) Helen Hunt, who has been on the show before, wants to talk about her new movie, "As Good as It Gets." Donald Trump wants to plug his new book, but the staff has in mind sending him on a shopping spree.

It has been easier to book celebrities on "Late Night" since the show began catching on with viewers and critics, but the 12:35 a.m. time slot remains a disadvantage compared to the larger audiences available at 11:35 p.m. for Letterman's "Late Show" on CBS and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" on NBC. Gina Battista and Davis, the two celebrity bookers, use charm, "Late Night's" demographics and a large network of contacts to woo guests, particularly stars who haven't been on before. (Stallone, for example, was booked through Harvey Weinstein, the co-president of Miramax Films, distributor of Stallone's recent film "Cop Land.")

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