Last week in New York for my birthday, I treated myself a taping of Late Night with Conan O'Brien. I've had that privilege several times in the past and always found it the fastest hour you can spend in Manhattan. Plus, well, tickets are free.
The show is taped in Studio 6A deep within that art deco temple of broadcasting, the GE Building of Rockefeller Center. 6H is a surprisingly narrow studio originally designed for radio broadcasts and later the home of the original Tonight Show with Steve Allen. Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, before moving his show to the west coast, also taping there, as did David Letterman during his NBC Late Night days. (Pictures of all four have hung for years on the wall to the right of O'Brien's desk.) They pack about 200 fans into the steep bleachers and every taping I've ever been to has always been a party.
That was true last week as long-time O'Brien writer Brian McCann came out to warm up the crowd. Canadian fans in the bleachers are always loud and proud and generally ignored by McCann, who instead picked on a visitor from Finland, home of O'Brien's doppelganger, female president, Tarja Halonen.
Before the show, O'Brien also came out and worked the crowd, something he used to throw himself into in the very early days. O'Brien used to whip himself into a frenzy singing Elvis tunes and dancing with college students in the front rows. Last week, he gave the Finnish guy a man hug, got him to hug another audience member and also band leader Max Weinberg.
In this ramp up to O'Brien's ascension to The Tonight Show (happening one year from now), the show is being altered slightly. The monologue, which used to be three jokes and out, now extends to 12 or 13 as O'Brien gets ready to fill Jay Leno's nightly joke quota. As one of the few late night hosts who was never a stand up comedian, telling jokes was never one of O'Brien's strengths, although he has developed a self effacing swagger and is backed by some of the sharpest writers in the business.
More than ever, you see some them on stage between segments. Head writer Mike Sweeney (right, with O'Brien at a 2005 Paley Center salute) slides into the guest chair to confer with O'Brien between the early show sections. Producer Jeff Ross also hovers around the desk. The show seems to have more of spontaneous, happening now feel to it, part of the vibe earned during the writers' strike, when O'Brien did some of his most daring, without a net work. Watching a taping today you get the impression that the show is being constantly tweaked, throughout the broadcast.
The guests last week were kind of lame. Animal expert Jeff Corwin brought on a bunch of furry beasts and a giant turtle. O'Brien seemed as bored as the studio audience with second guest Mario Lopez.
The highlight of the show may have been yet another appearance by not dead yet Barney Miller star Abe Vigoda, wheeled out in a bathtub full of ice with Actors Studio host James Lipton. This was so weird even O'Brien seemed stumped by what must have seemed way funnier in the writer's room.
After the show wrapped, O'Brien came out to thank the audience, joining the best band in late night in a rousing closing number. With his future as the next Tonight Show host unimpeachable and clear, you get a lot more O'Brien than you used to get at a studio taping. Enjoy it, New York, with O'Brien's Late Night exit planned for January, 2009, you've got six or seven months before the lanky red head moves out of 6H and heads for Los Angeles. If you are visiting Manhattan and looking for tickets, try this site and good luck.