Conan O’Brien wasn’t a household name before he started hosting Late Night, but he had already spent time behind the scenes as a writer and producer. Since taking over the reins of the talk show, he has become famous for his freewheeling, goofy style, which is accentuated by his 6’4″ stature, freckles and red hair.
O’Brien was born in 1963 in Brookline, Massachusetts. Although there were no show biz tendencies in his parents (his father was a doctor, his mother a lawyer), his sister Jane also writes and produces comedy, and he is a distant cousin of actor-comedian Denis Leary through marriage. O’Brien is among the comedic talents who passed through the offices Harvard Lampoon; he wrote for the humor magazine for three years, serving as its president twice.
After graduating from Harvard, O’Brien moved to L.A., and soon thereafter found work on HBO’s Not Necessarily the News. Three years and a few cancelled series later, Lorne Michaels tapped O’Brien for the writing staff of Saturday Night Live. He is credited as the principal writer on two classic skits, “Mr. Short-Term Memory” and “The Girl Watchers”. During his times on the show, O’Brien also made several uncredited appearances as an extra, once playing a doorman who takes Tom Hanks’ coat.
O’Brien left SNL in 1991 to write and produce a TV pilot for Lockwell, starring Adam West. Fortunately for O’Brien, the series was not picked up, allowing him to accept a job writing and producing for The Simpsons. He is credited with penning four episodes, including fan favorite “Marge vs. the Monorail”.
In 1993, O’Brien was picked to replace David Letterman as host of Late Night. After a rocky start (he once said, “Early on, they were timing my contract with an egg timer.”), he settled down and audiences settled in. O’Brien was supposed to move up an hour in 2009, taking over for Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show. That fell through after Leno failed in prime time and wanted to keep his spot. After a protracted and ugly fight with NBC, O’Brien took his program to cable network TBS, where it is a fan favorite.
— A. Wu