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“The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History” looks back at Conan O’Brien’s beginnings

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“The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History” looks back at Conan O’Brien’s beginnings

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With all the talk this past week or so about how NBC is booting Conan O’Brien off of The Tonight Night so that network execs can then turn this show back over to Jay Leno, I thought that it might be interesting to take a look back at how CoCo actually got into the late night talk game.

Which is why I cracked open a copy of John Ortved’s “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History” (Faber & Faber, October 2009). Which – to put it bluntly – is this supremely entertaining, behind-the-scenes look at this long-running (451 episodes and counting) Fox series.

John Ortved's newest book "The Simpsons:An Uncensored, Unauthorized History"
Copyright 2009 Faber & Faber. All Rights Reserved

And given that O’Brien played such a huge part in shaping this show … Well, it’s only appropriate that Ortved devotes a full chapter of this 352-page hardcover (which is loaded with great stories from writers, animators, producers and network executives who worked on this animated show over the past 20 seasons) to Conan’s tenure with “The Simpsons.” Which actually came about became CoCo had grown tired of working for another late night television show, “Saturday Night Live.”

As O’Brien told Ortved in a recent interview:

I was working on Saturday Night Live. It was fall of ’91 and it was time for all the writers to come back to Saturday Night Live, and I just realized I was burnt out.

Lorne Michaels and Conan O'Brien
Lorne Michaels and Conan O'Brien. Copyright New York Daily News

I told Lorne Michaels I couldn’t come back to work and I just needed to do something else. I had no plan whatsoever. I was literally in this big transition phase of my life where I decided, I’ll just walk around New York City, and an idea will come to me.

And this is one of those stories that aspiring TV writers everywhere must hate, but my phone rang, and it was Mike Reiss and Al Jean, and they said, “We heard that you just left Saturday Night Live. Would you be interested in working at The Simpsons?” So I said, “Yes.”

And – as it turns out – the staff of “The Simpsons” (because of Conan’s reputation for being the funniest writer at “Saturday Night Live”) welcomed O’Brien with open arms. As Josh Weinstein – a writer/producer who worked on this animated series from 1991 – 1997 – remembered:

Lisa, Marge, Homer and Bart Simpson along with Snowball the cat and their dog Santa's Little Helper
Copyright Fox. All Rights Reserved

Some of my best memories from (working on “The Simpsons” come from being with) Conan. Every day Conan was in the room it was like a ten-hour Conan show, nonstop.

This is largely because – during O’Brien’s time with this animated series – Conan helped write several episodes that are now considered “Simpsons” classics. Chief among these is “Homer Goes to College” and “Marge vs. the Monorail.” With that last episode having a particularly large impact on shaping the future of this Fox show.

As screenwriter Brent Forrester told Ortved:

The Simpsons was not initially cartoony. The first few seasons, it was an animated show about a family that was highly realistic. The conventional wisdom is that the show changed after the monorail episode, written by Conan O’Brien. Conan’s monorail episode was surreal, and the jokes were so good that it became irresistible for all the other writers to write that kind of comedy. And that’s when the tone of the show took a rapid shift in the direction of the surreal.

Leonard Nimoy introduces the new Springfield monorail on an episode of the Simpsons
Copyright Fox. All Rights Reserved

And yet – as O’Brien was cranking out these classic episodes of “The Simpsons” – there were rumors floating about that Conan was eyeing greener pastures. As Wallace Wolodarsky (who – along with Jay Kogen – were the first writers hired to work on this animated series) remembers, people on staff at the show were saying that …

... Lorne Michaels was talking to Conan about being the guy to replace Letterman. And it made complete sense to us, because Conan was so funny. We never would have thought of it in a million years, but as soon as you heard it, it made sense.

“So how did CoCo actually go about auditioning for the Late Night gig?,” you ask. Well, as Gavin Polone – O’Brien’s former agent – describes the scene to Ortved:

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson
Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson.
Copyright Johnny Carson Productions. All Rights Reserved

We came to this agreement (with NBC executives that they would allow us to) do a test with Conan on The Tonight Show’s stage and see how it went. We got Jason Alexander and Mimi Rogers to be the guests, and Conan worked on a monologue – and he did a great job.

And as Wallace Wolodarsky (who was there as this test was being taped) recalls:

One of the weirdest experiences of my life was going to see Conan’s tryout for Late Night, because it was done on the stage of The Tonight Show. That was back when Johnny Carson was still hosting the show (the curtain looked a certain way – it was this multi-colored curtain), and seeing this friend of yours, this guy that you worked with, walk out from behind that curtain and deliver a monologue was something that you could only dream up that you couldn’t ever imagine actually happening.

Heeere's Johnny DVD set
Copyright Johnny Carson Productions. All Rights Reserved

The whole thing was beamed back by satellite to New York, where Lorne Michaels was watching and probably other NBC executives.

So Conan came out and did an approximately twenty-minute version of a talk show. And then we all ran down and hung out on The Tonight Show stage, because we couldn’t believe it, and sat in the guest chair and did all the stuff that a tourist would do.

And after O’Brien’s audition, a couple of weeks went by. And – out of the blue – he got the call that changed his life. As O’Brien told Orvted:

The Simpsons writing staff circa 1992
"The Simpsons" writing staff circa 1992. Back row, L to R: Mike Mendel, Colin
ABV Lewis, Jeff Goldstein, Al Jean, Conan O'Brien, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein,
Mike Reiss, Ken Tsumara, George Meyer, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti, CJ
Gibson and David M. Stern. Front row, L to R: Dee Capelli & Lona Williams.
Copyright Fox. All Rights Reserved

I remember very clearly: we had just done a script. It was the day we were going to record an episode and we were all sitting around this table. A phone rang and someone said, “It’s for you, Conan.” It was my agent, Gavin Polone, and he just said – it was probably like ten o’clock in the morning – and he said, “You’re the new host of Late Night.”

Now if you think that O’Brien actually celebrated this news … Think again. As his fellow “Simpsons” writer Colin A.B.V. Lewis remembers:

The day he got hired, Conan came over to hide, basically, in our offices. And he was just lying on the floor, hands over his head, like, Oh, my God! It was just so bizarre.

Conan O'Brien making faces for the camera
Copyright NBC Universal. All Rights Reserved

“Simpsons” post production Michael Mendel also recalls O’Brien’s odd reaction:

(Conan) was passed out facedown in this horrible shag carpet. He was just quiet and comatose down there … I remember looking at him and saying, “Wow. Your life is about to change, in a really dramatic way.”

And indeed it would. Given that – at that time – CoCo didn’t have the sort of grown-up wardrobe that one associates with a late night host. Looking back on that time, O’Brien said:

Conan O'Brien posing
Copyright NBC Universal. All Rights Reserved

I didn’t own a suit. I just had a zip-front jacket and three pairs of jeans. So Gavin bought me two suits, ‘cause I had to go in and people had to get a look at me.

“So Conan then immediately went on to achieve late night success,” you say. Not so fast. As it turns out, what NBC’s been doing to O’Brien for the past two weeks isn’t the first time that he’s been jerked around by a television network. As Polone explained:

After NBC wanted him, Fox would not let (Conan) out of his contract. It was really shocking, actually, because we thought they would. I think it was a guy named Steve Bell. Really hard-assed us  and I’ll never forget it. They actually demanded money. And it wasn’t a situation where (O’Brien) was going to compete against them. (Fox) could have built goodwill, and they just dispensed with all of that, so (that the network) could squeeze a writer – who wasn’t making huge money to begin with – out of $100,000. It’s pretty funny.

Conan O'Brien poses on the street, fedora in hand
Copyright NBC Universal. All Rights Reserved

O’Brien also recalled this awkward time:

Some executive at Fox – who I don’t remember, and that’s probably for the best – said “No, no, no. he still owes us money on his contract.” It was like a year’s salary or something. So I think NBC paid half, and I paid half. I actually had to pay my way out of Fox, which always felt a little strange. I’m sure that Simon Cowell has that money now. He’s using it on hair gell.

One has to wonder – given that it’s rumored that Fox is anxious to have CoCo come on over to their network so that O’Brien can then start up a brand-new late night talk show – whether Fox executives will now offer to reimburse Conan for that “Simpsons” exit penalty that they hit him with nearly two decades ago.

"The Simpsons" writer and Pixar director Brad Bird
Brad Bird

Mind you, O’Brien’s trials and tribulations aren’t the only thing covered in "The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History.” Ortved also ropes in other production veterans like Brad Bird. Who talk about how this ground-breaking television show furthered his own personal agenda. As this Pixar rock star explains:

My agenda almost as long as I’ve been working professionally is to try to reinforce the idea that animation is not exclusively for kids. And so, for me, The Simpsons was a wonderful way to get on board a ship that was flying in the face of that. The problem with a lot of animated films that aren’t aimed at kids is that they try to declare their “adultness,” and it’s an adolescent way of announcing that you’re not aimed at kids. It’s not truly an adult way. What I liked about The Simpsons was that beside it being really funny, it was smart. It ran the gamut from really base, the occasional butt-crack joke, and then talking about Susan Sontag or something in the next sentence. It affected things very profoundly. But I think, unfortunately, a lot of people have taken the wrong lessons from The Simpsons and just the butt-crack jokes, and not picked up the smart ball.

Well, if you yourself would like to pick up the smart ball and then learn more about this Peabody Award-winning series (Which has won 25 Emmys over its to-date 20-year run of this show), be sure and get yourself a copy of “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History.” And if you’re on Team CoCo … Then you should definitely purchase John Ortved’s book. If only because you’ll then have some Conan-related reading material to tide you over until O’Brien’s next late night talk debuts in September.

Bart Simpson talks with an animated Conan O'Brien in an episode of "The Simpsons"
Copyright Fox. All Rights Reserved

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  • Nice Article Jim!  The book looks great.

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