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Conan O’Brien dominated the conversation at University of Southern California’s second annual Comedy@SCA Festival, riffing on everything from his early days as a writer, the “hard” life of being a Harvard graduate and snarking on Al Jean‘s go-to stories about Johnny Carson.
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell started off the Smart Asses: The Harvard Lampoon in Hollywood panel, which included Jean and Greg Daniels, addressing the common misconception that it is “easy” to get into show business after doing time at the Lampoon. (O’Donnell is also a Lampoon alumni.) After O’Donnell recounted a story about how David Letterman would often unknowingly pick a Lampoon graduate to join his writing staff — during that time it was “a strike against you,” O’Donnell said — O’Brien and company let loose.
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“Yes, people should stop discriminating against us white people from Harvard,” O’Brien deadpanned. “Enough! Give a white male from Harvard a freakin’ chance is what we’re here to say!” Jean jumped in with his own crackling joke: “12 Years a Harvard Lampoon Graduate is really sad.” It would set the tone for the next 80 minutes.
The Hollywood Reporter compiled 12 highlights from the free-wheeling discussion.
O’Brien on not being in cruise control after moving to TBS: “I actually thought, this is a mixed blessing,” he said when asked about the difficulties of losing his NBC skits/characters when he launched Conan on TBS. “I was really looking forward to the period in my career where I could cruise — I’m being completely honest with you — a period where I could say, ‘OK, here are the sketches people like and no one judges them anymore. Just do them. … Now, I can be on cruise control. I can put this thing at 60 miles per hour, rip off the steering wheel … and go down the highway. … Then I went through this thing, and suddenly we couldn’t use any of that stuff. … We’ve had to work extra hard to find new things, which someone, to be honest, my age probably wouldn’t be working that hard to find five. I started to try things on a whim.” One of those new things was video-game reviews, which “became this whole thing that I never would have found if I was relying on old material.”
O’Brien on meeting John Candy: O’Brien was a senior when SCTV‘s John Candy visited Lampoon headquarters (“a Flemish castle,” O’Brien would describe it) and he was Candy’s tour guide. “He was everything I wanted him to be; he was funny, generous, over the top,” he said. O’Brien was told that Candy was on a strict Pritikin diet, but when he arrived, the first place they went was a pastry shop, where Candy filled the box with eclairs. “But what about the Pritikin diet?” O’Brien relayed. “Don’t worry kid, they’re Pritikin eclairs!” O’Brien remembered Candy saying. Later that evening, O’Brien asked Candy for advice about trying comedy. “It’s not something you try,” he remembered Candy advising him. “You gotta go all in.”
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Daniels on not taking “crap jobs”: Daniels credited O’Brien for instilling in him the importance of “not taking crap jobs” at the early start of their careers. “People would give us these horrible scraps that you couldn’t really make anything funny out of, and I would be like, ‘Yeah, great! Now we’re going to write for this clown show,’ ” Daniels recalled. “And Conan would say, ‘No no no, we gotta hold out for something good where we can learn.’ ” O’Brien added that he never wanted him or Daniels to be stuck working on a “crappy” sitcom such as Silver Spoons.
O’Brien on regular short-term renewal cycles: It’s been well-established that O’Brien was on a 13-week renewal cycle (shortened from the original nine-month contract cycle, O’Brien said) for the early part of his Late Night run on NBC (“I struggled through a few of those,” he admitted), but short-term pacts went all the way back to his first professional job with Daniels, where they had three-week contract renewal cycles on Not Necessarily the News. When they first got to Saturday Night Live, they had two-week tryout cycles. O’Brien also referenced his 2010 Tonight Show debacle as another example.
O’Brien on why SNL was exactly like Mad Men: “It was out of Mad Men. We were there in the late ‘80s,” O’Brien said. “Now it seems absurd to me. Greg and I would write scripts on yellow legal pads and take them to a bunch of women in a typing pool. Later they’d come back and ask, ‘What’s that word here?’ “
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Daniels on his writers’ room formula: The Office EP compared the formulation of a writers’ room to a baseball team. “The people who are good at story and character at the upper-level roles and the younger writers are the best at the jokes,” Daniels said. “As the show ages, the guys in the higher positions become too expensive and try to do their own shows, and the guys in the lower positions … [fly] through the ranks and become the higher-paid senior people, and it gets inverted. I think that’s why a lot of shows get broader as they go on.”
O’Brien on his “Monorail” Simpsons episode: The 1993 episode is considered a turning point for The Simpsons. Up until then, the animated family comedy was often rooted in reality. O’Brien, into “weird concepts,” pitched the surrealistic idea and it was made — “Later on, I was told I broke The Simpsons,” he joked, adding that strangers talk to him about that episode more than his late-night shows.
O’Brien on why he didn’t hire Lampoon alumni: As the late-night host told it, he gained the reputation for not hiring graduates who had written for the Harvard humor publication. “I got attitude from people,” O’Brien said. “I went out of my way not to hire Lampoon people because I thought I already had that sensibility.” Instead, he looked to the Chicago improv scene, journalists, and gave Louis C.K. his first job. “People thought I was mad at the Lampoon; I wasn’t mad at them, I just wanted the show to have a different sensibility,” he said, citing desires to distance himself from Letterman’s Lampoon-filled writers’ room.
Daniels on Twitter: The Internet has changed comedy and its access, several of the panelists said. So much so that Daniels revealed he hired a writer based off tweets and no writing sample.
O’Brien on high-stress jobs: Writing can get so stressful that at one point, O’Brien got shingles on his face: “Stumbled to Cedars-Sinai by myself unattended and they thought I had got into a motorcycle accident.”
O’Brien and Daniels on their first months in L.A.: The duo made the move from the East Coast to sunny California on a “crappy” red-eye flight. “Greg couldn’t sleep — we were jammed in together — and he put a blanket over his head and rocked from side to side to try to get himself to sleep,” O’Brien recalled. They bought a $600 car — a 1977 Isuzu Opel — “from the airport,” he said, and “mattresses from a street vendor,” Daniels added. “We shared the car, we shared an apartment, and when we got to work, our desks faced each other, and after two years we were ready to kill each other,” O’Brien remembered fondly.
Daniels on inheriting Jean’s desk: “We [he and O’Brien] ended up working on Not Necessarily the News just as he [Jean] left … and I got Al’s desk,” Daniels revealed, “which was filled with a weird assortment of vitamins and earthquake awareness kits, things like that. I didn’t know who he was. That was my introduction to him!”
The festival, which included screenings and panels, is part of the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Comedy@SCA initiative and took place Nov. 9 and 10. Other guests during the weekend included Betty White and Lisa Kudrow.
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