July 2009

Tastemakers 2009 Conan O’Brien

by Lisa Birnbach / produced by Mayer Rus

Conan O'Brien We go back a long way: to 1982, when Conan was invited on a Boston television show to defrock me and my Official Preppy Handbook as the arbiter of prepdom. He was funny and sharp as editor in chief of The Harvard Lampoon, but I had the better complexion, and it was just a local show. In 1987, I was cohosting a pilot for ABC called Goodnight America, and he and his best friend, Greg Daniels, were my writers.

How confident and free these boys were, both joke writers earning a living in L.A., while other Lampoon alumni were pursuing high-paying corporate jobs. Then I read that the unknown Saturday Night Live and Simpsons writer with the strange name had been anointed by Lorne Michaels as the newest late-night star, and I have to say, I was shocked. Conan? That Conan? How did he slide to the front of the queue? I watched him intently (and with a bit of jealousy) at the beginning of his run, and though he was awkward, he was awkward in front of millions of viewers. He didn’t de-Conan-ify himself—he laid it on. Eventually, it worked.

Conan owns doofus. He’s the Doofus King, and I say that with admiration. Although awed by where it has gotten him, Conan has deftly arrived in the Chair, behind the Desk of The Tonight Show. No one can be silly at his own expense without being brilliant, and by poking fun at himself, he is gracious to everyone else. Manners count—they do! Conan’s “Run Across America” Tonight Show debut on June 1 was an entrance that simply had to be YouTube’d, Hulu’d and savored. (Google it now if you missed it—I’ll wait.)

Oh, silly carrot-topped string-bean man, we are ready for you.

Photographs: Getty Images