Conan O'Brien Conan O'Brien

Some people don't think Conan O'Brien is funny. Those of us who do tend to think these people are missing something — that they don't understand his jokes or appreciate the absurd, or that they just hate laughter itself. But O'Brien, who's taking over The Tonight Show, doesn't want to be divisive. He talked to about what makes him laugh, what he tells his writers about comedy and how his new audience is different from any other for which he's performed. What makes you laugh until you cry? Do you think that's the kind of thing that will play to the average person?
Conan O'Brien: I'm almost a zealot about not being a comedy snob. For example, one of the things when I was a kid that made me laugh the hardest was a Three Stooges episode where they go camping and a bear ends up stealing the Three Stooges' car, and it's a 1930s convertible. And the bear drives down this road, and it gets to the end of the road, and just as it's going out of view, it puts out its paw to signal for a turn.

And it was one of the funniest things I ever saw, and I always cite that to my writers, that funny is just funny. I appreciate a really great Steve Martin prose piece in The New Yorker, but I also loved it when he put an arrow on his head. There are so many different ways to be funny. What I've learned over and over again is that stuff that really makes me laugh hard works on other people. Funny is just funny, and that needs to be the focus.

I think the biggest danger to me taking over The Tonight Show, the worst mistake I could make would be to overthink it. I think it just has to be a funny show. And I have to worry about making June 1 funny, and then I have I have worry about making June 2 funny and June 3 funny. And if I do that, the audience will find it and we'll be okay. So you never think you'll have to cut anything on the grounds that it's just too weird?
O'Brien: But that's different. There are things that we would do on the Late Night show that I'd cut left and right. There are some things I wanted to cut, but we didn't have anything to replace it with. There were nights that we did arbitrary humor — there's an arbitrary humor that's good and then there's an arbitrary humor that isn't good and I would give my writers a hard time, because I would say, I don't get this. And they'd say, well, the joke kind of is that there is no joke. And I would say, yeah, but we're getting paid. [Laughs] Maybe you don't get a paycheck if there's no joke.

Yes, there would be times that it would be 1:25 in the morning and we would have a cactus playing the flute for no reason, and we were doing things just to see: What the hell? Do I think we can do that at 11:35? No, I don't think we can do that at 11:35. Maybe we can do it at 11:55.

I keep reminding my writers: For the first time in my career I'm performing for people that are fully awake.