“It’s still going to be good,” I heard a familiar voice say from behind me.
I turned and saw the teal curtains rippling where the voice’s source had just passed through. The students to my left had wide eyes and nervous smiles as if they had just seen a ghost — or a God.
An older gentleman peered over the silver rims of his glasses and gestured toward the opposite end of the stage. I followed his gaze over to where the band was set up.
“Mr. O’Brien is in the building.”
Conan O’Brien stood with his back to us. His foot rested on the stair to help balance the electric guitar in his hands. He began plucking out a song, the notes echoing out of speakers onto the mostly empty stage.
“Music tames the savage beast,” Conan’s stage manager, Steve Hollander, explained to the group of us watching in awe.
Our group moved into the audience and I sat myself in a corner seat with the best view of him.
He wore black slacks, a polka-dot tie, sneakers and a brown dress-shirt underneath a leather jacket. The only hint of color came from the messy crop of red hair that flopped over his forehead.
He was effortlessly cool. Watching him in that moment felt almost invasive. Like I was peeking through the windows of a trailer, spying on a rockstar.
He wandered away from the band for just a moment to come and talk to Rick Ludwin, a Miami alum who helped get Conan on NBC back in 1993. While they chatted, Conan absentmindedly played his guitar, only stopping briefly in between songs.
Before the show began, a highlight reel of Conan’s best work played to a buzzing audience. It demonstrated that, over the course of his 25 years in late night television, Conan has carved out a brand of late night comedy all his own.
While other late night hosts build their shows off of biting political satire or gimmicky bits, Conan provides witty sketches reminiscent of his days as a writer on “Saturday Night Live.”
He’s known for segments where he spends the day in the American Girl Dolls store, or tries his hand at old-fashioned baseball. In each, he serves as a catalyst to help bring out the most delightfully odd elements of the scenario.
He is able to playfully pull the silliness out of anything, to the delight of his audience.
Conan isn’t shy with jokes about himself, either. His self-deprecating sense of humor helps make him more relatable, and he downplays his intelligence to make himself appear as some guy who somehow ended up behind a late night desk.
His true genius cannot be seen while he’s delivering his monologue, or interviewing a celebrity guest. It’s the moments in-between sketches when his talk-show host persona falls away that his wit and comedic talent are most prevalent.
Before the show, Conan was watching sketches and making edits on the fly. Looking for any and all ways to improve a piece. During the show, he watched all the pre-recorded sketches with a critical eye. He was taking mental notes of what ran long, what could have had a bigger laugh and what he would have done differently.
When the taping was paused to set up for the first interview, Conan did not interact with his audience as some hosts do. He instead stood with the band, but this time he did not have a guitar. He immersed himself in the music, tapping his foot to the beat.
With his eyes closed, he let the music wash over him. The stress of the monologue rolled off his shoulders with every note.
When the taping resumed, Conan returned to his chipper demeanor, engaging in playful banter with the guests of the night, DJ Khalid and Natasha Leggero. The interviews were funny and light-hearted, like a conversation you might hear between two friends at a dinner party.
When it was time for the musical guest to perform, Conan’s sidekick, Andy Richter, stayed on the couch chatting with Natasha. Conan came out from behind his desk and stood just behind the cameras. He swayed ever so slightly to the folk music, his figure silhouetted by the stage lights.
It was in that moment, watching a brilliant comedic giant seek comfort and refuge from the pressures of his own craft, that I understood what his stage manager said earlier.
Music tames the savage beast.