Usually, it’s not very rewarding to watch the comedy sausage get made, but the occasional clips Conan O’Brien posts from his show’s rehearsal are the rare exception. But even with his glimpses behind the curtain, we generally only see comedy that eventually worked well enough to make it on the air, or failed so spectacularly in rehearsal that that’s its own story. But in this case, Conan posted a sketch that wasn’t bad, exactly, just a little underwhelming, and it’s absolutely fascinating. The bit was a check-in with dim-but-confident Tony the Cameraman, a recurring character who usually kills. (Don’t miss the time he got mad about not winning a MacArthur genius grant.) This time around, however, he didn’t have a lot to work with: Tony was pitching some sort of complicated scheme to cover Dodger Stadium with a dome—this was during the climate-change-enhanced World Series—and suffering from the misconception that Conan owned the Dodgers. Like I said, it wasn’t a lot.
But there is a lot in watching O’Brien and Tony rehearse this. There are the usual behind-the-scenes revelations—Conan’s face disappears without makeup, Andy Richter wears shorts to rehearsal, both an acoustic and an electric guitar are in arm’s reach of the host’s desk—but what’s really interesting is O’Brien’s reaction to a sketch he doesn’t love. He immediately zeroes in on what he doesn’t like about the premise, then illustrates that by pitching an even worse premise with the same problem: a conversation about Tony selling onions. Then he pitches—and more or less writes out loud—a different sketch entirely where the premise is that Tony has a brain tumor. It’s thrilling to see ideas come together so quickly, even when they’re not necessarily the best ideas. And anyone who’s tried to get something half-baked past their boss will relate to the way Conan shuts down a writer trying to convince him that the skit’s still relevant because “it’s the World Series, it’s gonna be really hot out!”
“Uh huh. I know. It’d be great to have something on it,” he replies. Harsh, but fair.