Stephen Colbert and Conan O'Brien remembered the old days (and the old network money)
“You are the living history of late night” is how Stephen Colbert started his latest conversation with Conan O’Brien. It was the weirdest line in a splendid interview, which was otherwise the kind of conversation you can only have when you’re starting to get old, talk of trips abroad and mutual friends and some distantly Rashomon‘d remembrance of first meeting long ago between two young men who would be king. “You are the living history,” though? A kind compliment, but nobody wants to be history, you want to make history, active voice, some history still waiting in the future.
I’m not saying Colbert was insulting O’Brien. This was the hosts’ second sitdown of the season. O’Brien went on The Late Show last month, and here was Colbert on Conan. O’Brien said he enjoyed the chance to speak with another person who does his job (“I’d go and talk to the others, but they’re a–holes.”) They have the same job, supposedly, although Colbert’s mode is ascendant. O’Brien asked Colbert about his recent trip to Russia, and I suspect he was hoping for sightseeing tips. The TBS host has caught some kind of travel bug, maybe restless after a quarter-century behind a desk in New York and Los Angeles, a media megalopolis bisected by the country it serves.
But Colbert’s trip to Russia took a turn for the topical. He went to stay at the Moscow Ritz, in the presidential suite that was the sight of a certain alleged tape involving a certain current President. “We used to have classier scandals,” moaned O’Brien. “We used to have Teapot Dome and Watergate.” Teapot Dome! Colbert’s travel story went on; he was followed around Russia by Russian spies and American spies, he said. Teapot Dome! I love O’Brien’s nerdlinger instincts, that unabashed Harvard Lampoon braininess. It was transformative, opposite the graying Late Night Warriors. He could’ve made a Teapot Dome joke in 1997, and it would’ve made him sound young, a kid fresh out of history class. Now he sounds nostalgic.
A fun game to play: Who’s older, Colbert or O’Brien? I thought I knew, but I kept trying to figure it out during the interview. O’Brien’s had a more visible career for much longer, starting after Leno way back in the early ’90s. Colbert presents as older, especially in his somewhat more sincere CBS incarnation, an irate dad for justice; O’Brien seems unchanged by the passage of time, no older yet somehow encroachingly Swinton-ic. Colbert is more a part of “the conversation,” but that’s just because, for a brief span of time, O’Brien was the conversation. I guess this is just nostalgia talking – you never forget the first time the world was supposed to change and didn’t! – but I’m not sure I’ve ever loved a late night show as much as O’Brien’s sshort-livedTonight Show — so promising, so embattled, such a scene, a nightly show that started to seem like every moment of every day.
O’Brien’s older, but only by a year, and the second half of their conversation was the endearing part. O’Brien talked about Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of the Dana Carvey Show, a documentary about the short-lived comedy show that was produced by a cabal of in utero comedy Illuminati, Robert Smigel and Charlie Kaufman – and Stephen Colbert! Colbert recalled his first blush with network budgets, “back when primetime was primetime… the old network money just doesn’t exist anymore, only HBO has that now.” O’Brien added his own memories of those wild old days, in the early days of Conan O’Brien, with a writing staff that included Louis CK and Dino Stamatopoulos: “They would pick the most expensive restaurant in New York, order food [from] it, and charge it to NBC.”
My mind ran to the Bugatti Veyron Mouse, one of the perfect bits from the O’Brien Tonight Show‘s perfect final week. That was another goof on NBC money – burn it all! – and it feels like a distant echo from another era now. O’Brien’s departure from NBC coincided (or caused, or was caused by) the splintering of the late-night audience, which has led into a splintering of an entire stylistic arc of late night history. Daily, weekly, political, no desk: We’ve gone from stately network order to chaos, and better for it.
But the O’Brien-Colbert talk had a nice valediction for those old days, too. Colbert recalled being at 30 Rock, working on an Ambiguously Gay Duo sketch for SNL, watching one of O’Brien’s Late Night rehearsals on a television. (It sounded like Colbert was talking about the mid-2000s, a time when NBC was signing checks to future late-night competition and to Apprentice host Donald Trump.)
In Colbert’s telling, he watched on the television as O’Brien sat at his desk, with two writers, going over the laughlines for the desk piece. “So, umm, what do you guys think of this?” asked O’Brien. The writers said they thought it was okay. O’Brien then, speaking through Colbert now: “Good Enough Gang rides again, pshew pshew.” Damn, what a gunslinger! That’s the O’Brien of memory, so manic he seemed to tell jokes on three levels, making fun of his delivery of making fun of his delivery. Now he seems calmer, and maybe that’s the wisdom of age or the job security of basic cable. Maybe he’s less exciting. But, then again: I thought O’Brien’s interview on The Late Show was a snooze, and I loved Colbert’s interview on Conan. You remember that old joke about the two barbers, one with hair that looks terrible and one with hair that looks great. Which barber do you go to? It’s a trick, and a lesson: The one who looks bad made the other guy look good.
They shook hands, and O’Brien told Colbert “you are killing it,” which sounds more fun than being living history. Then the next segment started, and O’Brien brought his friend Ronda Rousey onstage to introduce the new XBox One X console, “True 4K gaming,” you get the picture. The end credits declared, no doi, “Promotional consideration furnished by Microsoft 2017.” The network money’s history, but a little product placement’s good enough.