‘I’m Literally With Coco’ — An Intern’s Experience in Late Night Television
Conan O’Brien has been a staple of late night television for almost twenty years. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of young writers, comedians and interns have worked on his TV shows since 1993. Here is one guy’s story.
I was there for fifteen minutes before I saw him, the funny man with the giant red pompadour. To say that our first encounter was comfortable would be a flat out lie—it was awkward with an incredibly loud silence added into it. The reason was mainly due to the architectural design of the bathroom. You see, on the ninth floor of NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City the lavatories are bizarre and horribly structured, walking through the door the first thing you see is the profile of a urinal holding no splash guards. Therefore, one can assume that by entering you’d have a perfect view of a peeing-man’s package. Like I said, a horribly designed bathroom. So, being there for a mere fifteen minutes I chose the stall. However, he opted for the urinal.
I vacated the safety of my enclosure and saw him, Conan O’Brien, urinating right in front of me. It was weird to say the least. And what’s weirder? The sink was place just about a foot to the right of that urinal with the soap being half way in between, still no splash guards. I stared down at my hands the entire time, terrified as all hell, with the sweat re-wetting my fingers in a never drying cycle as I attempted so with a towel. It figures, I thought. I’m fifteen minutes into my script internship at Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the first time I see him is in the bathroom. What could I say? “Hey Conan! Nice to meet you. I’m Kyle… how about a handshake?” In the middle of my hand washing he finished and hovered over me like an ominous cloud. Truthfully he could have himself been thinking why isn’t this kid saying hi to me? But Christ, I was twenty-one years old and it was Conan O’Brien. So I finished, dried my hands and left the bathroom, finally able to breathe again with my head raised. My heart rate returned to normal and the color slowly came back to my face.
And that was my first encounter with him. I had heard stories around the offices dealing with interns. Everyone had his or her Conan tale but mine was unique. Mine was different. Mine was one that could never be brought up to him, ever.
That set the course of my life for the next six months. Five days a week I lived in a dream world, and perhaps the best part to me was that I was a script intern. There were approximately thirty-five interns total, all in different departments within the show: casting, music, general production, script, etc. Yet there were two script interns and in my opinion we had the best job. The first half of our day was spent in the offices, waiting for the rundowns and scripts to be written. We ran no errands, got no coffee. We couldn’t with the way that show ran. It was organized chaos but somehow the staff had managed to deliver an entertaining show each and every night. There’s no doubt that they’re all professionals over there and as an intern I knew to take everything in. I can only imagine that the process of TBS’s CONAN is very much similar.
Being in script, our job was simply to wait and attend to any changes of the script and rundown of the show. Rather than being a master of Starbucks running, we were masters of the copy machine. Nearly everyone on staff saw our faces and knew our names—with the exception of a cameraman who called me Karl for six months. For some reason I never corrected him.
At two o’clock is when the day changed; it was rehearsal time. Most of the staff would head down to the sixth floor studio to watch the comedy sketches that were planned for the evening’s show. It was here that we script interns would split up. One would stick back in the control room—where the show is operated—and the other would head out to the studio floor where our boss would sit on the couch near Conan awaiting any changes to the script. Should there have been any—and there usually were—it was our job to visit our dear friend, the copy machine, yet again and pass out the new scripts. After rehearsal the control room morphed into our office and our waiting room. We’d await any changes until show time, and often during the show as well. I remember one evening actually delivering script changes during Conan’s opening monologue. The crowd laughed immensely as he spat his quips while I was just behind them all sweating; sweating because if I didn’t deliver the script change in a matter of minutes the lighting guys would have no clue that the bit Conan was about to do had been altered by two lines, leaving the light change to happen sooner. It was stressful, but hey, it was show business.
The best part of the day was ten minutes before show time, 5:25PM. Out in front of the curtain the audience was cheering with anticipation at seeing the show before their very eyes. The band would be playing, hyping everyone up as the cameras were set in position. However, in my eyes backstage is where the real magic was happening. The script supervisor (my boss) would leave the control room, allowing the script interns to go with her and stand backstage to watch Conan recite the monologue jokes in a personal setting. There he’d critique the lines one last time with the head writer, Mike Sweeney. Every weeknight for six months I’d stand two feet from Conan O’Brien and listen to that monologue. There were only six of us behind the curtain: Conan, Mike Sweeney, the other script intern, our boss, the cue card guy, and myself. During these five minutes Conan would judge our reactions, switch up the jokes and often make tiny remarks off our responses. I was in heaven. Though I’ve got to admit, I always wondered [hoped really] if every time Conan saw me he thought, there’s that weird kid from the bathroom who never said hi to me. Sadly, I doubt it.
One night after reviewing the monologue I remember Steve, the said cue card guy, approaching me asking for help in “catching.” Late Night, and I assume CONAN too, was run all on cue cards. There were no Teleprompters. The writers of the show as well as Conan write up until the very delivery of each bit, which might cause problems in time if using a prompter. Therefore, cue cards are the answer. And holding so many jokes, lines, bits and actions can get heavy. So, on occasion, we script interns would be asked to catch the used cue cards during the monologue or first act. That meant if standing next to Conan backstage before the show was heaven, standing out on the studio floor during the show was something indescribable. There is no better view than watching a show like that from just behind the camera.
As if being an intern at Late Night with Conan O’Brien wasn’t enough of a conversation starter I had another piece of information that made interesting dinner table talk. I was present during the latter part of the WGA Writer’s Strike. Truthfully the internship was met with some disappointment at first given the fact that the writing was what I was interested in. I wanted to meet those guys, the minds that really made the show what it was. The creative types, the bizarre personalities, the dream team of comedy if you will—I wanted to talk to them all. And just as it happens I showed up at the time that they weren’t even in the offices! But it worked out. In just over a month the show was again running with writers.
During my time at Late Night with Conan O’Brien I had an amazing education. I had somehow managed to turn my dream into a reality. I remember watching Conan as a college freshman saying, “It’d be cool to work there,” followed, of course, by my friends explaining to kindly dream on. But just three years later I would be there… who would have thought? In my six months I befriended some of the staff, spent over an hour in multiple writers’ offices discussing comedy and writing, and I even got some pointers from the crew. One of told me, “You’ll be fine in this business. Just don’t be stupid.”
It’s funny, hanging out with the interns and hearing what their hopes and dreams were—many similar to mine—I always found myself wondering which one of us will make it. How many will persist forward with their hopes? Who will give up at the very first of many rejections? And how many will settle in and find their true place in that business? I think for the most part it still remains to be seen.
Interning at that show was an opportunity that I wouldn’t trade for anything. If you think you’ve got what it takes I say give it a shot. You never know. Every one of us was once people on the streets thinking how to get up to the studio floor. Somehow we got it, so why can’t anyone else?