Inside Television: A lowdown on the life Conan O'Brien


Who is this Conan O’Brien bloke? And why are Americans always banging on about him? In the US, the Orange-Haired One inspires fans worship somewhere between cult leader and One Direction member on the devotion scale and soon we’ll find out why. His talk show Conan is arriving in the UK on Monday, as part of the launch of new free-to-air  channel TruTV. Here’s what you should know:

1. Conan O’Brien is a high achiever

They don’t give just anybody their own talk show. O’Brien, 51, got his start in comedy writing for Saturday Night Live (a comedy institution of 38 years and counting). He moved on to The Simpsons in 1991 (a comedy institution of 27 years and counting) and in 2009 achieved his life-long ambition of hosting The Tonight Show (albeit only briefly, see point 5). The Tonight Show has aired since 1954, making it the longest running talk show in world history. To be the undisputed king of US TV institutions all he needs is a bit-part on Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

2. He gets our British sense of humour (but not our taste in music).

O’Brien lists Monty Python, Blackadder, Steve Coogan and “comedy legend Gordon Ramsay” among his greatest influences, which explains his excitement to be on British television. “I think my self-deprecating, improvisational style should fit well with the UK sensibility,” he said in a press statement. “My pale, freckled skin will remind your viewers of either a dear old friend, or that irritating man in the pub who won't stop singing Abba tunes.“ In my local, that irritating man keeps it strictly seventies AOR, but otherwise, O'Brien is spot on. 

3. As with burgers, cars and breast implants, talk shows in America are just bigger.

Jonathan Ross’s move to ITV made headlines and clips from Alan Carr: Chatty Man sometimes go viral, but that’s nothing compared to the primary place talk shows occupy in US culture. There, they typically air four or five nights a week (as opposed to just Fridays, when everyone’s out at the pub). This means the host can worm his way into viewers’ daily lives in a way that’s not possible over here. The big names in US talk shows aren’t just accomplished interviewers with impressive stamina, however. They must also be stand up comedians, sketch writers, improv guys - all-round comedy renaissance men. 

4. He looks a bit like a former President of Finland

In case you were wondering, Conan O’Brien is proud of his orange hair and the Irish American heritage it represents. But he’s even prouder of his uncanny resemblance to Tarja Halonen, the (female) president of Finland from 2000 to 2012. In 2006, following Halonen’s re-election he travelled to Helsinki to meet her and film a special episode of the show. He’s been big in Finland ever since.

5. He’s not afraid to stand up for himself.

The great Tonight Show conflict of 2010 is a complicated (and frankly, dull) tale of contractual nitpicking but - long story short - Conan had a public feud with The Tonight Show’s network NBC and former host Jay Leno. Long story shorter: Conan won. As well as walking away with a $33m pay off, the two-week stand off demonstrated the strength of his popular support. He was nicknamed CoCo by fans, T-shirts and posters were printed bearing the legend ‘I’m with CoCo”, and comedians including Will Ferrel, Ben Stiller and Ice-T came out to support of him.

Ross, Norton, Carr - even Parky - take note: As with his Barbarian namesake, resistance to Conan O’Brien is futile. Your only hope is to stand down and be conquered.

'Conan' airs on TruTV (Freeview channel 68, Sky channel 565 and FreeSat channel 154) at 11pm, Monday - Thursday.


Tulisa: The Price of Fame, BBC iPlayer

This week, the programme everyone was talking about was BBC Three’s timely documentary, Tulisa: The Price of Fame. The former X Factor judge revealed her inner strength, her talent for American accents and - most troubling - her love of greasy Papa Johns pizza. Surely a part in a US cop series is the obvious next career move?

Children of Syria, BBC iPlayer

A reminder that while the eyes of the world are on the horror unfolding in Gaza, innocents continue to suffer in other wars, elsewhere. This important piece of journalism from BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet followed six Syrian children over six months to see how the civil war had impacted on their young lives. Some had taken up arms to fight, some had fled to refugee camps and all were deeply traumatised.

The Alternative Comedy Experience,

Any televised ‘live’ performance is usually best avoided on FOMO grounds. Watching it on TV just isn’t the same, is it? This Stewart Lee-curated half-hour of stand up is an honourable exception to that rule. It functions as an overview of all the great comedians who are too odd to be on panel shows and too unpredictable to feature on Live At The Apollo. Too good for TV, in other words.

Scandal, Sky Go

If you’re having trouble keeping up with all the skullduggery (and you thought House of Cards was far-fetched...) then the season one and two catch up on YouTube will get you up to speed in time for series three on Sky Living. Scandal might night be subtle, but it’s certainly addictive. Plus, star Kerry Washington has a wonderful way with a trouser suit.

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