Josh was always a super writer and it's great to see him making the leap after years of hard work. I remember seeing him at a mic a few months back telling this joke: "How do you know when you're no longer paying your dues and you're just failing?" A few days after that, I remember giving him some drunken advice at a bar: "You know all those funny jokes you've written...you should tell them in a row." Shows what I know! (And also shows what a prick I am, eh?)
Anyway, before Josh left town he showed me the packet of jokes he submitted. Really great stuff in there. I guess the whole thing was a bit of a whirlwind...a current writer for Conan saw him at a show in January and told him he should submit. Josh put together a package right away. Months later, in May, he got a call and within a week or so he was hired. A few days later he was on a plane to LA.
He knew a couple of the other writers there beforehand which probably helped, but the real ace up his sleeve: He had been writing late night monologue jokes every day for a year at a "secret" blog that no one knew about. So he had a huge supply of jokes to pick from. Looking through the packet, you could see the polish. I was really impressed. Sharp, funny jokes that you could totally see coming out of Conan's mouth.
Monologue-style jokes are a strange breed. You've got to be clever yet still use references that everyone's gonna get. That's why the targets are always the same couple of dozen people/topics. Josh managed to hit those topics without seeming stale, not an easy thing to do. I think he'll do well there.
Conan's been doing a ton of press leading up to his debut and this long piece in the Times is the best one I read. Here he talks about the link between music and comedy (something I've discussed here before too):
Dressed for the show in a suit and tie, and then settled behind the drum kit of the “Late Night” band, the Max Weinberg Seven. O’Brien began drumming as the band played “On the Road Again.” “Music and comedy are so linked,” O’Brien said earlier, as he walked up and down the halls of his offices, playing one of his many guitars. “The rhythm of comedy is connected to the rhythm of music. They’re both about creating tension and knowing when to let it go. I’m always surprised when somebody funny is not musical.” O’Brien smiled. “And, you know, Johnny loved to play the drums.”
Lorne Michaels on what makes a good host:
I liked that Conan was young, intelligent and that he had, like Johnny Carson, good manners. A good host always obeys the rules of hospitality, and Conan has an essential decency and work ethic that were obvious from the start.
Reminds me of an episode of Make 'Em Laugh I watched recently where Joan Rivers gives two reasons why Johnny was such a great host: 1) He was a great listener who followed along and wasn't a slave to a list of questions and 2) He was the perfect straight man because he wanted you to get the laughs.
Conan on all the variables that come along with doing comedy:
“The thing that saved my life was that I didn’t really know what I was in for,” O’Brien said, an hour before taping his last show. “If they had explained to me exactly what was involved, I might have run. But I did not want to fail. And now I’m addicted to the feeling of what it’s like to do a good show. There are 35 variables every night — what comedy do we have? What’s the audience like? Who are the guests? What time of year is it? What’s my mood? You need 15 cherries to line up to pay out the jackpot. And, every now and then, the stars align. And you keep chasing after that feeling.”
All those variables are what make standup so fascinating. So many things play a role: the room, the PA, the crowd, the host, your confidence, the placement of each word, little variations in timing, etc. It feels almost impossible to come up with a fixed formula because there are so many moving parts. But yeah, when you hit it and really lock in, there's nothing quite like it.