When you hear the name Conan O'Brien, you probably picture the man who single-handedly rallied America's youth against Jay Leno, revenge after Leno took back the Tonight Show gig that, only nine months earlier, he'd left.
But where would O'Brien be without his writers? Thursday night, staff from Late Night With Conan O'Brien, The Tonight Show and Conan talked about pitch anxiety, lion-lambs, gravy boats and onanistic wildlife for the opening of the Everything Is Festival at Cinefamily.
The Silent Movie Theater's set-up was charming and low-fi, the stage decked out in its low-budget finest with animal-print sheets and plastic skulls. The projector worked about 50 percent of the time, most of the clips malfunctioning slightly before festival coordinator (and Cinefamily director) Hadrian Belove intervened.
“The idea of a masturbating bear. How does that happen?” moderator Jimmy Pardo asked writer Brian Reich, creator of one of the more memorable skits from Late Night. In Reich's sketch, a bear in a diaper is asked to perform a specific task (participate in a million-dollar giveaway, for example) but winds up fondling himself instead.
“I mean, there were dreams of course,” said Reich. “The image of a bear masturbating. He's so powerful, but he's such a prisoner of his own desires.”
“How do you stumble upon this job right out of college?” Pardo asked Reich, whose first job was as a writer for Late Night with David Letterman. Reich stalled in what turned out to be a valiant effort to avoid making the rest of us feel bad about ourselves, and then answered, “Well, I worked for the Harvard Lampoon. And I had a friend who'd worked for Letterman…” Oh. Pardo changed the subject.
Writer Andres du Bouchet explained the pitch process behind Conan's Gravy Boat Lighthouse skit. The sketch, shot like an infomercial, features three men eating Thanksgiving dinner. When one tries to pass the gravy dish to his neighbor, he steers it across the table shakily, like a boat navigating a storm. “Are you an insane person who thinks your gravy boat is an actual boat?” asks an announcer. The camera pans to the item for sale, a miniature lighthouse designed to sit on mashed potatoes and guide the gravy safely ashore. The sketch has spawned YouTube homages and its own Facebook page with 1,923 likes.
“It was just filler on a page, to make the text on the page seem longer,” du Bouchet said of the written pitch. When the producers gave it the okay, he remembers scrambling to figure out how to turn it into a real joke.
Often, though, these things work in reverse — a writer will spend days or weeks crafting a pitch, only to have it bomb in execution. Todd Levin came up with an idea that involved Poseidon rising up behind Conan's desk mid-interview to ask the host mundane questions like, “What time is it?”
The rehearsal clip, which Levin played for the audience, featured an obviously annoyed Conan who didn't try to hide his boredom with the tepid joke. The Everything Is audience laughed anyway. “They seem to like it,” said Pardo.
“They're laughing because it was a failure,” Levin answered. He wasn't wrong. Other ideas that died before they could make it to air included a half-lion, half-lamb creature meant to symbolize the middle of March (the month that, as the saying goes, “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb”) and a sketch about an updated Encyclopedia Brown, which one writer was unlucky enough to pitch to Conan on the day he found out he would no longer be hosting the Tonight Show. A stone-faced Conan watched the taped skit without cracking a smile. When it was over, he turned to the producer next to him and said, “Well, maybe this is for the best.”
Of course, this story has a happy ending. Less than a year after his Tonight Show stint ended, Conan resurfaced on air with his own show on TBS. The staff of Conan includes several writers who worked for him on his other shows. For the most part, the writers seem happier now than they were at NBC. Dan Cronin described the Tonight Show offices at Universal as feeling temporary and shabby, “like renting out a parking space at a shitty amusement park.” The new show is taped on the Warner Brothers lot. “We're certainly having more fun,” Cronin said.
The panel opened a full weekend of found footage and comedy as the Everything Is! Festival takes over Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater. More information available at the Cinefamily website.
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