On this date in 1993, Conan O’Brien made his debut as host of NBC’s “Late Night,” a program many people didn’t think could or should continue without gap-toothed treasure David Letterman. Unlike “The Tonight Show,” which passed through a few sets of hands before it found Johnny Carson, “Late Night” at this juncture had only seen Letterman. The eleven year old outing was soaked in Dave’s DNA, seen by most as an extension of the sarcastic Indiana-bred genius himself. How could “Late Night with David Letterman” have a replacement? How could that replacement be an unknown entity named Conan?
As a fourteen year old Letterman stan at the time, these thoughts certainly swept through my noggin. Conan hooked me from the get-go, though, with that brilliant “Good Luck, Lotta Pressure!” cold open on his first “Late Night.” Talk about a perfect response to the avalanche of criticism and uncertainty the guy was facing. The execution is flawless, too. More importantly, “Lotta Pressure!” set the tone for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” This guy wasn’t trying to project Dave’s oddball detachment. If Letterman was your older brother, the guy who for all his charm you knew would never really let you inside, Conan arrived as your chipper school chum, a kid at your level who wanted to make you laugh so neither of you felt alone and weird anymore.
And such was “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” Though it debuetd at a time when basic cable comedy was entering a golden age, most nights you’d be hard-pressed to beat the clubhouse atmosphere coming from NBC’s 12:30 slot. This is the show that centered itself around a shit-talking dog puppet for a stretch, a Rickles clone that seemed too bizarre/amateurish to make any kind of cultural dent. Yet this puppet feuded with Eminem, this puppet was sued by a dot com, this puppet released an album. There’s another Conan/Dave difference. If Letterman were ten years younger he’d be the one bickering with rappers and getting in Internet entanglements. Conan has always seemed more than happy to let his inmates run the asylum.
That said, I’m not gonna sit here and pretend I wasn’t crushed when “Late Night” sold more ad time and could no longer allow Conan to just riff for a few minutes at his desk after the monologue but before the first comedy bit. Some of the funniest stuff he ever said and did was in that pocket. To wit: the Chocolate Lucky Charms spiel from 2005. “They took Lucky Charms, the most decadent horrible cereal of all time, and they made it CHAK-LET!”
This will probably sound stupid and crazy considering all the real problems going on in our world, but watching Conan get chewed up and spit out by NBC is 2010 really wounded me. It was the ball going through Buckner’s legs in Game Six. Sure, Conan rebounded, his TBS show is often as good as anything he did at 30 Rock, but it’s not the same. Turning on the tv that seven months he had “Tonight,” it just felt like victory. They didn’t chase this guy off to another channel. Conan O’Brien had graduated. To watch it go down in flames like it did…well, it wasn’t fun or funny like it usually is to watch something go down in flames. A shitty Stooges album I can handle. This, not so much.
On the other hand, seven months is such a small sliver of a two decade span. The positive far outweighs the negative. And who knows how far Conan will go into the future? I’m not a big routine type of person but I’m happy to imagine Conan popping up on whatever dumb gadget we’re watching tv on in ten years. I imagine it’ll need regular tire rotations and some sort of gravity-defying liquid to keep it “alive.”
But I digress. Thanks for all the yuks, O’Brien. The pressure’s off. Have a good show tonight.
I call this one The Glory Years. I wish it didn’t look so yellowed but I do these late at night and excitedly snap pictures with the only available light source, which is some super old desk lamp that casts everything in such a hue. You’ll see how white it is after I die when it’s hanging in the Museum of Jim Greene.
When reached for comment on Fallon’s rumored promotion, Greene remarked, “You know, this is all Jean Doumanian’s fault. If her version of ‘Saturday Night Live’ had been a success in 1980, Lorne Michaels wouldn’t be “LORNE MICHAELS” inasmuch as NBC probably would have ignored his suggestion to replace Letterman with Conan in ’93.
“Look, I love Conan, but it’s obvious NBC only went with him because he had the ultimate reference. Coco’s not a rabble rouser in the style of the guy he replaced but he’s still not as ‘company’ as Leno. They needed a Leno Junior in there. Instead, they got a Lorne-endorsed headache, one that plagued them through an entire second Bush presidency.
“It’s all ‘SNL 80.’ If Jean Doumanian had made that shit work, check the alternate timeline: Lorne Michaels spends the majority of the 1980s turning Three Amigos! into a trilogy, we get ‘Late Night with Greg Kinnear’ once Letterman bounces, Jay Leno hosts ‘Tonight’ until he drops dead in 2023, and Charles Rocket lives to appear in another Dumb & Dumber movie. It’s sick, it’s twisted, but it’s also probably fact.”
Back in March, I conducted an interview with Upper Crust singer and guitarist Lord Bendover (a.k.a. Nathaniel Freberg) for U.K. tit mag Bizarre. Unfortunately, everyone running that periodical is on drugs, and the interview never ran. To be fair to the dear Lord for giving me his time (not to mention all the Crust fans hungry for wig-related insights), I now present to you complete, unedited, unpublished JG2/Lord Bendover summit.
Lord Bendover (second from left) and the boys. Photo by Jay Elliot.
JG2: I’m guessing the reason you guys play so infrequently is because wig upkeep is so expensive and difficult, right? Wigs just don’t hold up out on the road, do they?
LORD BENDOVER: Wigs have not been an issue. In fact, the worse you treat them the more rocking they look. I speak for my own wig of course. Our drummer Jackie Kickassis’s complex double-breasted wig might require more attention. I tried to wash a wig a while ago—say that 10 times fast—and it wound up well the worse for wear. Probably because I put it in the dryer. Of course, it is never advisable to put a wig or any other item of costume in a plastic bag immediately after a sweaty show and forget about it for months while it ferments.
JG2: So what keeps the Crust from playing more than once every few months?
LB: We would play more often if more people offered us more money.
JG2: You guys recorded Revenge For Imagined Slights in one week and released it the next. Was that the plan going in to the studio, or did it just work out that you were super efficient?
LB: We tracked the songs in three days, including writing and recording “I Stand Corrected” in about an hour on the morning of the last day…which explains why it’s such an astoundingly brilliant song. We did some backup vocals and guitar overdubs and mixed everything in another three days, and on the seventh day we rested while the Camp Street crew uploaded the album.
We were fortunate to be working with an extremely talented production team at Camp Street Studios, Paul Kolderie and Adam Taylor, whom we’d worked with often in the past. We did have a kind of time constraint as we wanted to have something new out before we flew out to Los Angeles to tape the “Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” a couple of days later. So yes, we were super-efficient and it was the plan to get the record online immediately.
JG2: How’s the reaction been so far?
LB: Revenge has been warmly received by our girlfriends and the 20 other people who have heard it so far. We might do a little PR for it. As it is, you’re the first journalist to know of its existence.
JG2: How did was the crowd reaction when you played with Aerosmith? Were all the gnarly bikers down with the Crust?
LB: It was at the Boston Garden, then called the Fleet Center, on New Year’s Eve, and it was pretty much a sea of uncomprehending faces. Nobody in the audience had any idea what was going on or whether they were supposed to laugh, cry, or ignore us completely. [Steven] Tyler and [Joe] Perry were very nice to us. They actually kind of copped our look for their set somewhat, costume-wise.
JG2: How hard was it to convince three or four of your friends to start this band in the first place? Did you carry the idea for it around in your head for years like most geniuses, waiting for the perfect moment to put it into action?
LB: Not hard at all, we were all playing together in other bands and spontaneously came up with this hilarious idea of a hard rock band coming from privileged society, which quickly refined itself into what we know today as the Upper Crust. Most of the first album’s material wrote itself in a month or so and within another couple of months we had costumes, names, and identities established and were more or less period correct.
JG2: Do you ever fear running out of 18th Century aristocratic references for the band to use? How far away are you from penning a rock opera based on the life of Colley Cibber?
LB: We ran out of ideas long ago. But now that you’ve given us the suggestion, we are newly inspired and will get right to work on the rock opera.
JG2: Has anyone in the band noticeably broken character in concert? It seems like it might be hard if, I don’t know, a microphone shocks you or if someone hits you with a beer bottle.
LB: Never, except for an embarrassing and inexplicable period when I could not stop speaking in a sort of a Scots accent. These kinds of things can happen in the aftermath of even a minor head injury, or after listening to Alex Harvey.
JG2: How the hell did “Eureka, I’ve Found Love” end up as a bonus song in Guitar Hero?
LB: The company that originally designed the game was based out of Boston and slipped some of their favorite bands in.
JG2: Seriously, where do you get those wonderful wigs? Did you make them yourselves?
LB: Lacey Costume Wig in New York City.
JG2: Which experience was more pleasurable—appearing on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” or appearing on “The Late Show with Craig Ferguson?”
LB: Having just done the Craig Ferguson show, I would say it was an enjoyable experience. You get three passes at the song for your and the camera crew’s benefit, then you eat lunch, then they shove you through a curtain and count down from ten while the audience of about 60 people applauds, then you exit via the same curtain. So you’ve been onstage for approximately four minutes and you haven’t even broken a sweat while they immediately rearrange the studio for the talk show segment, which you watch from the green room.
Conan O’Brien had a big fancy set in a large studio in front of a bigger audience, with himself and the guests at one end and the band at the other. I will say that both Conan and Craig Ferguson are two of the funniest people in show business and it has been a great privilege to appear on both shows. Only I remember Ferguson as if it was just last week.
Lord Bendover and the Duc D’istortion rock out while Count Basie appears non-plussed in the background.
JG2: Do you think Aaron Burr got a raw deal after he shot Hamilton, or was his personal and professional exile justified?
LB: With all due respect, I decline to venture an opinion on this still highly tendentious and inflammatory issue.
JG2: Okay, fine. What about Ben Franklin? You buy into that whole “penny earned, penny saved” nonsense?
LB: Ben Franklin is featured on the U.S. hundred-dollar bill, so he’s a fine one to be talking about pennies.
I’ve been a big Adam West fan all my life. As a child, his lumpy, awkward Batman was the only live action Caped Crusader in the game. Thus, I loved him. When I was ten, Tim Burton’s Batman came out and pretty much obliterated every other piece of super hero media in existence. Michael Keaton’s subtle and intense take on the Dark Knight made West’s incarnation look even more ridiculous. Luckily, Adam’s stock as a kitschy has-been was on the rise, and it wouldn’t be long before he was celebrating his inherent goofiness along side the Horseshacks and Erik Estradas of the world. By 1995, saying you liked Adam West usually got you a high five instead of a sucker punch (unless you were talking to Burt Ward).
Forward-thinking comedians Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel realized Adam West’s kitsch potential much earlier than that. In 1991, they wrote and produced “Lookwell,” a television pilot for NBC. In the vein of “Police Squad!” and “Get Smart,” “Lookwell” was a half hour spoof that starred West as a washed-up TV detective who arrogantly believes he can lend a crime-solving hand to the real authorities in his city. Hindering Lookwell considerably in his endeavors is the fact he’s a complete idiot. His logic is always faulty, his methods generally involve overly elaborate costumes, and he often wastes precious hours talking to a statue of William Shakespeare. The former actor is generally regarded as a nuisance by all who encounter him, save the handful of dedicated students who attend the acting class he half-assedly teaches.
NBC was doing pretty well in the comedy department in 1991 (“Seinfeld,” “Fresh Prince,” Golden Girls”), and they decided they didn’t need Adam West’s clueless would-be detective character. “Lookwell” slipped into a dusty crack somewhere in Hollywood and probably would have been forgotten about completely had O’Brien not landed the coveted “Late Night” spot vacated by David Letterman two years later. I’m not entirely sure when I first heard about this incredible project, but I know I first saw it on YouTube a couple of years ago. It’s still up there, actually:
I remember not being terribly impressed by “Lookwell” the first time around. I must have been in a bad mood that day, because I took a look at it again a couple of nights ago and nearly pissed myself. The first five or ten minutes are just non-stop yuks. Things slow down a bit in the middle, but West pulls out all the stops in the grand finale when he attempts to disguise himself as a hobo. That sequence is one of the funniest things I ever have seen in my life. If you consider yourself a fan of comedy, do yourself a favor and watch this here “Lookwell” business. It’s one of entertainment’s great tragedies that more episodes weren’t made. Then again, maybe that just serves to heighten the hilarity of this single jaunt.
Fun fact: on the commentary track for the episode of “The Ben Stiller Show” guest starring Adam West, I remember Stiller saying something to the effect that Adam West wasn’t doing the patented “Adam West” voice when they started shooting the “Information 411” skit. He was just talking like a normal guy, I guess, which isn’t really why you get Adam West to appear on anything. You want him sounding like a weirdo, because that’s the whole gag, right? The Stiller Show people didn’t know what to do until someone said, “Hey Adam, do your William Shatner impression!” Then, boom, West goes right into his famous perv voice. So I guess that means Adam West has been doing a prolonged William Shatner impression for the past forty years.