#TheUnknownHustle: Conan O'Brien


In 1993, after NBC tapped Jay Leno to succeed Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and David Letterman announced his move to CBS, The Peacock needed to put together a brand-new Late Night. So Lorne Michaels reached out to a former Saturday Night Live writer named Conan O'Brien to see if he'd want to be a producer on the next iteration of the show.

At the time, O'Brien was working at The Simpsons and was known as much for his spotlight-seizing writers' room gags as he was for scripting series-defining episodes like "Marge vs. The Monorail," according to John Ortved's The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History.

"In a nutshell, we sort of said, 'Lorne, this is not the direction he wants to go, to be a producer," O'Brien's then-agent Gavin Polone told Ortved. "He wants to perform."

Finding few seasoned comics up to the task of trying to fill Letterman's shoes, Michaels eventually arranged an audition for the relatively unknown O'Brien on Carson's famed Tonight Show stage in Burbank. In a "twenty minute version of a talk show," Conan delivered a monologue of jokes he had prepared and interviewed guests Mimi Rogers and Jason Alexander in front of an audience of fellow Simpsons' writers.

Later, when Polone phoned O'Brien before a Simpsons recording session to tell him that he got the job, not as a producer, but as the host, Conan was somewhat overwhelmed, to say the least.

"He was passed out face down into this horrible shag carpet. He was just quiet and comatose down there on that carpet," recalled Simpsons postproduction supervisor Michael Mendel to Ortved. "I remember looking at him and saying, 'Wow. Your life is about to change, in a really dramatic way.'" 

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