Conan O'Brien: Stand-up's Best Friend in Late Night

Comedy Features Conan O'Brien
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It was funny to see Madonna perform stand-up on The Tonight Show last Thursday—not because of the set itself, but because you couldn’t ask for a clearer symbol of the status of stand-up in late night: The Tonight Show, once a breaking ground for emerging comedians, would rather have a celebrity goofing around than book a legitimate, if lesser-known, comic. Of course, one of those is far more likely to grab BuzzFeed headlines and YouTube clicks the next day.

One of the most enduring aspects of Johnny Carson’s legacy as Tonight Show host is how important his approval was for stand-up comics of that era. Comedians built their careers toward nabbing a spot on his show, crafting the perfect television-ready, five minute set, hoping that by the end of it Carson might invite them over to the couch—a gesture that effectively meant they’d made it.

No late night show in the new media landscape can ever be as prominent as Carson’s Tonight Show was, which makes it even more astonishing how frequently airtime was devoted to people who had never been on television before. On the other hand, we now have basically six versions of The Tonight Show on the air, hosted by a variety of white men—Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, David Letterman, James Corden, Jimmy Kimmel, and Conan O’Brien—but only O’Brien has shown a consistent commitment to showcasing comedians.

“The high frequency of stand-up performances on our show is all because Conan is such a fan of comedy,” says J.P. Buck, who’s been booking and producing the stand-up segments for Conan O’Brien since his stint on The Tonight Show. “He’s been hosting a late night show for 22 years and has consistently showcased comedians of all levels.”

If the other hosts are fans of comedians, they haven’t demonstrated it to the same degree as Conan. The same night Madonna did stand-up on Fallon, Conan had two comedians on: Amy Schumer was lead guest and Joe Zimmerman did a set. The night before featured Tig Notaro and Jon Dore. This is not unusual for the show. Conan’s most booked guest over the years is Marc Maron by a considerable margin; lately Bill Burr has been making multiple appearances per year.

In contrast, not only does his late-night competition book stand-ups less frequently, but they also draw from a narrower range of comics, providing fewer opportunities to up-and-coming comedians. Fallon pretty much only books the biggest stars, and Letterman’s spots seem reserved for veteran, established comedians. Kimmel, Meyers and Carson Daly do book some newcomers but don’t feature stand-up as frequently. Craig Ferguson had a decent track record of breaking new comics and it’s too early to judge Corden. Right now, only Conan is consistently giving airtime to comedians making their first appearances on late-night television.

“It’s not necessarily about discovering comedians, although that’s part of it. The show always leans towards finding the funniest set for our audience,” says Buck. “That being said, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing people respond positively to comedians they’ve never seen before.”

To the comics afforded the opportunity, the spot itself is the culmination of a lifelong dream. Solomon Georgio performed his debut set in February. “It’s a validation,” he told me. “Doing comedy for however many years and then having somebody go ‘we want to have you on TV?’ There’s more confidence in how I approach stand-up now. I don’t lose confidence as quickly on things as I used to. It’s a beautiful validation.”

What’s more, being able to have that first spot on Conan is particularly meaningful. “I was such a fan of his as a kid,” said Adam Cayton-Holland, who performed his first spot in 2013. “I was a big Letterman guy, too, but Conan really spoke to a lot of people my age’s goofy voice.”

Adam’s career has benefitted from the spot. “It’s huge for your legitimacy, to your friends and peers, but also for clubs to book you,” he said. His comedy group with Ben Roy and Andrew Orvedahl called The Grawlix recently received a series order for their sitcom on TruTV.

It’s not unusual to see comedians debuting on Conan catapult to bigger things, according to J.P. Buck. “Deon Cole did stand-up [when we were at] Tonight, then we hired him as a writer, and now he has a role on ABC’s Black-ish. Pete Holmes had been on the show a few times and it just clicked, so Conan produced his late night show for TBS.”

For Cristela Alonzo, her Conan spot helped her land a sitcom on ABC. “Conan gave me something no other late night show had: a chance,” she said. “That set was shown to execs and that’s how I got my development deal and sitcom. Because of that, I will continue to do stand-up on Conan until he tires of me.”

Of course, it’s also true that the late-night spot is not as make-or-break for a comic’s career as it was during Johnny Carson’s tenure; obviously the media landscape is different now and there are many more opportunities to garner attention. Aparna Nancherla is a comic who has built a name for herself as a strong stand-up but also with her huge Twitter following, both due to her impeccably sharp joke writing. I asked her whether Twitter or Conan led to more recognition. “Twitter might edge it out slightly, just because the Internet is all-reaching in a way that one TV spot isn’t as much these days, but Conan opened so many doors for me, both because it is a respected entity as a show and because it exposes you to an audience who might not discover you otherwise and gives you a degree of credibility you didn’t have before,” she said.

Aparna’s set was also notable for the fact that she was the first Indian woman to perform stand-up on late night. More spots for stand-up means more chances for increased diversity. That’s why it matters for late-night to take chances: you get new voices and new kinds of comedy. Investing in comedians who aren’t already famous means creating an environment where original comedy can develop and flourish.

“Conan’s asked me to find people who challenge the definition of what stand-up can be,” J.P. Buck said.

Jon Dore and Rory Scovel have both taken aim at challenging the boundaries of what stand-up on television can look like, both together and separately. Their first appearance together was under the premise that the spot had been double-booked, so they both did their set simultaneously. A year later, they did another experimental set that blurred the line between stand-up and sketch. “I am amazed that J.P. and Conan and everyone at the show has let Jon and I do the things we’ve done on the show,” Scovel said. “The fact that they are willing to let comedians take chances makes the comedians think more outside of the box, knowing they can do it there.”

Their individual sets have been just as inventive: Rory’s done a full set with a fake accent and another in a tuxedo with a piano player. Jon was actually the first featured comedian on Conan, and he set the tone well. His set features a two minute theatrical act-out of fishing that ends with him shirtless with a dick drawn on his chest. “I asked J.P. if we could have a live bear walk through the background,” Dore told me. “He did everything in his power to try and make it happen. We ended up using rain falling from the sky. I was thrilled.”

Allen Strickland Williams, whose first spot on Conan came in November, embraced the weirder vibe that had been established. “I saw Chris Fairbanks perform on Conan last year and loved how loose and weird his set was,” he said. “I remember my management was trying to get me to do a clean set for late night, but after seeing Fairbanks I said to myself, ‘nope, that’s the show I want to do. I want to be dirty and weird.’”

I asked Williams what that first time was like for him in the moment. “It was like being inside the TV. I was insanely nervous right before I walked out on stage, because I realized it was actually going to happen. As it was happening I did feel like I was having some sort of out-of-body experience. It was a powerful, visceral feeling.”

J.P. Buck understands the challenges that face comedians looking to make an impression with their late-night set. “There aren’t many harder places to do stand-up than late night,” he admitted. “You have the high ceilings, it’s in the early afternoon, and it’s not a stand-up crowd. The crowd is there for the host, they’re not drinking, and you’re the only stand-up and you have to walk out cold and win people over with the first joke. That’s not an easy thing to do. There’s no way to practice for performing in this environment. People don’t realize how hard it is to translate what you’re doing in a comedy club to ‘okay, I only have five minutes and these people don’t even want to see me.’”

Looking back at Conan’s split from The Tonight Show in 2010, it’s hard to not see it now as a blessing in disguise. The Tonight Show that Johnny Carson inhabited, the one that Conan dreamed of hosting since he was a kid, doesn’t exist anymore. But in losing The Tonight Show title, Conan has ended up becoming the only host continuing Johnny Carson’s legacy of making stand-up a vital part of late-night television. When Letterman retires this May, Conan O’Brien will inherit the title of longest active host in late-night. It’s strange to think of Conan as the elder statesman of late-night when so much of his career has been defined by youthful irreverence, but it looks like he will continue to use that influence to benefit stand-up comedy.

Jackie Kashian has seen Conan’s commitment first-hand. She had been a national touring comedian for over 15 years before receiving her first late-night opportunity on Conan in 2013 and a second spot this past February. “It’s incredibly generous and forward-thinking of him to encourage new talent. It reveals that he, himself, likes stand-up and that he knows we’re all going to be working for Jon Dore one day.”

Grant Pardee is a writer, comedian, and comedy lover in Los Angeles. Follow him on twitter @grantpa.

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