Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend
by Charles D.J. Deppner
There are a lot of histrionics about the brinksmanship of late-night hosts. Carson and Letterman were notorious and diligent workmen, but with Conan O’Brien, what’s become increasingly self-evident by his podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, is he hasn’t “worked” as a host for nearly 30 years as much as thrived, like an orange-headed mallard in water. Going back to his days at Harvard, SNL, The Simpsons and late-night TV, Conan has always been and remains “The Smartest Guy in the Room.”
But what would happen if Conan O’Brien was unfettered by the complexities, logistics, hangups, and censorship of the late-night talk show? In the longform, ad-hoc format of a podcast, Conan’s wit, persona, and capacity for improv and spontaneity are on full display with almost Groucho-esque potency. Casual discussion, fast-quips, and piercing humor come easy and it’s evident Conan loves and lives for the talk show, and he’s found the means and has the commitment to let it all hang out.
Like Lucifer, he’d rather rule in podcast than serve in broadcast, and if the powers that be won’t let Conan use his powers for good, then he will use them for self-indulgence. Much of the show’s momentum is Conan’s slow embrace of the dark side of his id. (The premise of the show’s title alone is a suggestion Conan is incapable or challenged in achieving human relationships.) On several segments, Conan has repeatedly hinted that he fancies himself a supervillain, even so much as to suggest he’s going to make his staff dress in the fashion of henchmen from the 1960s Batman TV series.
Producer Matt Gourley and Conan’s long-time assistant Sona Movsesian serve as co-hosts and are the periodic lateral recipients of an irony-infused passive-aggressive belligerence, berating and teasing them at a personal level only achieved amongst people who truly know and care about one another. Sona and Gourley reciprocate by providing the aloof indifference of teenagers tasked with babysitting a spoiled savant. This give-and-take makes for great comedy, and time passes quickly like you’ve stumbled upon an excellent party where apparently everyone is no longer obligated to be polite.
With his guests, however, it becomes crystal clear, Conan actually has friends. It’s clear the guests are there of their own accord and on his show because they feel comfortable with Conan. There will always be opportunities for something unique to occur, because Conan continues to thrive in distilling and driving discussions into meaningful moments, and without the limitations and rigors of broadcast programming, these are less interviews than naturalistic and humor-punctuated conversations.
Apparently, you may be able to take the host out of the traditional talk show, but with Conan O’Brien, you’ll never be able to take the talk show out of the host. He is a force of nature.