My Two Conan Experiences

During the week of September 1st 2013 my wife, Lisa, and I went to Los Angeles, CA to attend live tapings of three late-night talk shows over four days. These are the second and fourth parts of our journey…

Remember a few months ago when I wrote about accidentally winning the auction for two tickets to see Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on Charitybuzz.com? Remember how it turned out that the tickets were for a specific show only four days after the auction closed? Remember how I freaked out and had to scramble to get the time off and find a way to get to NYC and back? Yeah, me neither.

But, if we had remembered that, it would have been the perfect beginning to this story, a story in which I had purposefully won the Charity Buzz auction for two tickets to see Conan, the tickets were good for up to a year and I had nothing but time to arrange a trip that didn’t include spending a portion of my life in the Pittsburgh Greyhound station at one o’clock in the morning.

In other words, it was a complete turnaround, a well-executed plan, a flawless victory.

Almost.

For, you see, while it’s true that I had intentionally placed the winning bid for the first set of Conan tickets, it’s also true that I had unintentionally placed the winning bid for the second set of Conan tickets.

If you think about it, it really wasn’t my fault. One day I was innocently browsing Charity Buzz when I discovered that, with less than two weeks to go, no one had placed the minimum opening bid in an auction to see Conan. These tickets were available at well below market value, and it felt unethical not to take advantage of this opportunity. “Someone just needs to get the ball rolling,” I thought as I threw my name in the hat. “These tickets are such a deal that someone will surely outbid me.”

No one did.

“We’re going to see Conan twice,” I whispered to my wife as she peacefully slept the night the auction closed. She didn’t respond, so I figured she was fine with it. Surprisingly, a few days later when I reminded her of our future commitments, she had a higher number of opinions and a complete desire to express them.

Tuesday, September 3rd:

2013-09-03_Conan_01_ticketGiving monies to charity in exchange for Conan tickets resulted in Lisa and I having a “VIP reservation”. What did that mean exactly? It meant that we were guaranteed to have decent seats for the show. It did not, as it turned out, mean that we could watch the taping while sitting on the guest couch, play the drums in between segments or sexually harass Andy. Apparently the people at Conan haven’t quite mastered the “very important” part of “VIP” yet.

But seriously, even though we had a VIP reservation I still wanted to there early to see how things were done. The check-in deadline was 2:30 PM, so Lisa and I arrived at the Warner Brothers parking structure around 1:30 PM. This turned out to be nowhere near other people’s definition of “early”, however, as there were well over a hundred people already checked in by the time we got there.

After justifying our existence to the Conan staff we were entrusted with special Conan-infused items: wristbands, official tickets and a laminated card with a number on it. The number represented our place in line when heading over to the studio. Based on all the people who were way ahead of us, if we had had free tickets to Conan we would have been given a number somewhere in the fifties or sixties. Since we were VIPs, the nice people at Conan had saved us card number 21. That meant there were still at least forty people in front of us, but not all one hundred people.

2013-09-03_Conan_02_Ben_with_popsicleOf the five late-night talk shows I’ve seen as of this writing, I have to say that the check-in procedure for Conan audiences is by far the best. First of all, you get to park for free in a parking structure that has more than enough spaces available. Second, and I can’t stress enough how huge this is, once you’ve checked in you’re completely free to leave until it’s time to head over to the studio. Third, if you decide to stay, the waiting area is pretty big and there are enough benches for everyone. Fourth, the staff and interns are really friendly. Fifth, they let you keep and use your cell phones. Sixth, if it’s hot enough they pass out free popsicles. Seventh, they have a wide selection of t-shirt designs to choose from. Lisa was impressed enough with the options that she actually bought one too. You’ll have to wait until Thursday to see which ones we picked out.

Around 3:15 PM we boarded the air conditioned bus that would take us across the street to the WB studio lot. As we weaved our way through the lot we drove by Simon Baker, the star of The Mentalist. A lot of women on the bus went nuts. Seriously. Nuts.

After driving past hundreds of buildings and almost hitting nine parked cars we arrived at the studio, got off the bus and walked single file to the audience section. Lisa and I were directed to the first two seats in the fourth row on the stage left audience section. They were great seats. We had a perfect view of Conan while he performed his monologue, and a reasonably clear view of him, his guests and Andy during the rest of the show when the camera move in and surround him.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any good shots of us in the audience. You’re just going to have to trust me when I tell you that we’re here:

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And here:

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Those of us who were seated by this point had lots of time to wait as they bused additional groups in, and nothing to do. We couldn’t use our cell phones, and there was nothing on the monitors to watch. This is the one area where Conan could really stand to improve the audience experience with just a tiny bit of effort. Both The Late Late Show and The Tonight Show played past musical performances on their monitors during this time. They were fun to watch and made waiting for the show to start considerably more enjoyable.

Eventually the buses had no one left to drop off, so the warm-up comedian, Jimmy Pardo, came out and welcomed us to the show. His routine began with a few jokes related to things we needed to be aware of while at Conan, followed by interacting with (and giving a hard time to) people in the audience. Overall I thought he was funny and did a nice job. His act was dark and a little aggressive at times, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone as far as I could tell.

Jimmy then introduced Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band. They came out and played two songs for us. Trombonist Richie “LaBamba” Rosenberg sang the first song, and trumpeter Mark “The Loveman” Pender belted out the second one. The best part, though, was that both of them walked up and down the aisles and interacted with the audience while they sang. I must point out that this was a real treat. None of the other late-night house bands come close to giving this kind of performance before, during or after the show. Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band deserve extra recognition for their terrific effort.

Right before the show started Andy Richter walked over to his podium and waved to us while we applauded him. I really respect and admire Andy’s comedic talents. I wish he had spent a minute or two saying hi and welcoming us. I know the name of the show is “Conan”, but there’s little doubt that Andy is a significant part of why we all watch the show. Oh well.

Then, it was time for the show to officially begin. The band played the Conan theme song, Andy delivered the introduction (that none of us could hear because we were all clapping and screaming so loud), we all stood up and then Conan came out. I have to admit, while it was wonderful to be in the audience when Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson walked out on stage, I hadn’t felt this level of exhilaration since seeing David Letterman do it. It was that awesome.

Conan’s monologue was pretty funny. This was my favorite joke:

This weekend leaders from the NAACP met with leaders from the KKK. After seven hours of talks both sides agreed they don’t really care for Bryant Gumbel.

Here’s a little piece of trivia for ya: the monologue included a bit that was edited out of the show before it aired. It involved a guy in the audience voicing angry disapproval upon learning from Conan that the main leads had been cast for the 50 Shades of Grey movie and he hadn’t been picked. I liked it, but I’m guessing it got cut for time.

The comedy segment was Celebrity Survey. While this has never been Conan’s strongest recurring sketch, it is consistently decent enough to recommend:

Jason Biggs was the first couch guest. He’s on the show Orange Is the New Black. The interview was good. Jason was personable, easygoing and told some amusing stories. Here’s a piece of the interview:

Alison Pill was the second couch guest. She is on the show The Newsroom. The interview was fine. Alison was friendly, had a good sense of humor and told some interesting stories. Here was my favorite part of the interview:

Rory Scovel was the stand-up guest. He was great:

After Conan shook Rory’s hand he turned to the camera, thanked his other guests and said “good night”. Conan chatted with Rory and Alison while the credits rolled. Soon the cameras went off, the guests disappeared and Conan had a small post-show conference with his production team.  Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band kept playing during all this time, and we discovered why a minute or two later when someone handed Conan a microphone. He came over to the audience, walked up to the third row in the section Lisa and I were sitting in and sang a funny little song about how the show was over, the cameras weren’t filming and he was just wasting our time. It was pretty cool.

Conan thanked us for being the audience and informed us that, as an extra bonus, they were going to show us the newest Clueless Gamer sketch which would air the following night. So we did that.

Then it really was time to leave. Instead of getting back on buses we had to walk through the studio lot and across the street in order to return to the parking structure. It was a little off-putting having to do that, honestly. I guess it makes sense, though, as they only have one or two buses, and they don’t want us standing around in the studio where someone might get bored and start some rascally mischief.

It was an entertaining show and a great experience. More importantly it was a dry run for…

Thursday, September 5th:

2013-09-05_Conan_01_ticketOn a mission that even IMF agents would conclude was “too impossible”, Lisa and I, donned from neck to waist in our new Conan t-shirts, pulled into the Warner Brothers parking structure at 12:15 PM in order to be the first people waiting when, a scant fifteen minutes later, representatives from Conan would begin passing out the numbered cards that signified everyone’s place in line when heading over to the studio.

Imagine my shock when I discovered that there were already twenty people ahead of us.

On a mission that had gone to hell while our breakfast was still digesting in our tummies, we sat behind all the #$%^& people who had decided that today would be a good day to screw me over. When 12:30 PM rolled around I watched as laminated card number 1 was handed to some group of jerks who were stupid and ugly and smelled bad and were stupid.

When the Conan staff came to around to us I decided to do something I don’t normally like to do: take a chance and risk failing. After showing them our VIP reservation I told them that we had seen Tuesday’s show and had been very pleased with our seats. I let them know that we understood that giving us a number around 21 again would place us in the fourth row and allow us to watch the entire show without being blocked by cameras. Then, however, I informed them that this time we didn’t care. We, I mostly, wanted to sit as close to the stage as possible this time. I had a plan, I explained, and being in the first or second row was imperative to its success.

They patiently listened, they nodded their heads to signify comprehension of the words coming out of my mouth and they looked at Lisa with sorrow and pity in their eyes.

Then they handed me card number 1.

“But, Ben,” you’re asking me telepathically because my phone is in the other room and I’m too lazy to get out of my chair and answer it if you called, “how was this possible? Didn’t you see a group of jerks get card number 1?” Yes, I did, but that card was white, and our card was yellow. “Was your card soaked in urine, or was it yellow because it represented the next step in the ongoing evolution of numbered cards?” The answer, it turns out, is a little from column A and a little from column B.

While our card was number 1 in the literal sense, it was actually number 10.5 in the figurative sense, and that was good enough for me.

The mission was back on track. Lisa and I drove off to commence phase two.

Before I go any further, let me explain something to those of you who are not regular watchers of Conan. Unlike the other late-night talk shows, Conan is cool with audience members bringing and holding up custom made signs when he walks out at the beginning of the show. He likes and appreciates them. He takes a few seconds to acknowledge as many signs as he can. On rare occasions, if the sign is creative enough, he’ll even go so far as to engage the sign holder before officially starting his monologue.

When I saw Conan on Tuesday I had expected to see, at the very least, six people with signs. I specifically did not make my own sign because I didn’t want it to get lost in the sea of all the other signs. Instead, as far as I could tell, no one brought a sign to that show. That led me to conclude that maybe I wouldn’t have to compete with other signs. Maybe if our sign was the only one, and unique enough, he’d actually see it and respond to it.

We arrived at the Staples on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood shortly after 1:00 PM. We purchased some heavy duty markers and an 18” by 30’ roll of paper. A store employee lent us a counter top that wasn’t being used. We got down to business.

Every sign that has ever been brought to a taping of Conan follows one of three basic themes: Conan’s hair, a request for Conan to fulfill (like a hug or marriage) or a reference to the words “Team Coco”. I had decided to go with a twist on theme number three. We rolled out the paper and wrote “TEAM ROSS” in huge letters.

Have you ever heard the name Jeff Ross in the context of late-night television? No, of course you haven’t. That’s because when people think of Conan, 95% of the time they think of Conan O’Brien, 5% of the time they think of Andy Richter and 0% of the time they think of Jeff Ross. Well, I decided it was time to make the people at Conan aware that there was at least one fan of the show who not only loved Conan and Andy, but appreciated Jeff and his accomplishments over the years.

Jeff has been with Conan since the beginning. When Lorne Michaels was looking for someone to produce Late Night after Letterman left he turned to Jeff. Jeff wasn’t sure he wanted the job, but after he watched Conan audition he accepted it. They’ve worked together and been close friends ever since. Conan has been doing late-night for twenty years now, and Jeff has been with him every step of the way. If you’re interested you can read more about what a great person Jeff is in Bill Carter’s The War for Late Night.

But just because I wanted to give props to Jeff didn’t mean I wanted to exclude Conan or Andy. We rolled out more paper and wrote “TEAM ANDY” followed by “TEAM CONAN”. Why? My ridiculously optimistic hope was that TEAM ROSS would get Conan’s attention, we’d then scroll over to TEAM ANDY, he’d laugh and then we’d end with TEAM CONAN and everyone would clap. Looking back on it now, I realize this plan had absolutely no chance of ever working out that way. Back then, however, I was on an adrenaline-fueled mission with a chance to do something unique for the last late-night show I was in LA to attend. Plus, my wife didn’t stop me. I’m guessing she decided it was just easier if I learned my lesson the hard way.

2013-09-05_Conan_02_Ben_at_JKLWe still had plenty of time before we had to head back to Warner Brothers, so we drove over the Hollywood Boulevard and visited the building where Jimmy Kimmel Live! is produced. Since JKL was the one late-night talk show we didn’t have tickets for during our vacation in LA, non-nonchalantly walking by the front of the building that housed the studio was the best I could do. I asked a security guard if there was anyway I could go inside and buy a t-shirt, but was politely told to bug off.

While I was there a team lead by Jimmy’s cousin Sal was in the process of filming a football-related sketch for that night’s show. I asked if I could be in the sketch even though I was wearing a Conan t-shirt, but was politely told to bug off. I hung around for a few minutes and watched them film various interactions between Sal, a Nerf football and innocent bystanders. None of them made it into the final cut. If you want to see the sketch you can watch it here.

2013-09-05_Conan_03_Ben_with_popsicleLisa and I return to Warner Brothers parking structure around 2:30 PM. We parked. We went through security. We sat. We waited. We played on our phones. We had popsicles. We took a really bad picture of me. We waited some more. We got in line to get on the bus. We got on the bus. The bus entered the WB studio lot. The bus almost hit five cars as it navigated tight corners meant only for gold carts. We didn’t see any television or movie stars. We got off the bus. We walked into the Conan studio. We were given the best seats I could have possibly hoped for.

We sat right behind the podium Jeff Ross stands at during the show.

Phase three was in the bag. We just needed to complete one more to fulfill our mission.

After everyone was seated Jimmy Pardo came out and did the same routine he did on Tuesday, although with different audience members. When his time was up he introduced Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band. They played the same two songs, and LaBamba and The Loveman took their casual strolls through the audience. Then Andy came out, waved and took his place.

The show was less than a minute away from starting. Lisa and I initiated the final phase by unrolling the TEAM ROSS portion of the sign as Jeff and Conan head writer Mike Sweeney walked over to us.

Jeff saw it, read it and became embarrassed. “Please put that away,” he told us. “I’ll never hear the end of it otherwise.”

I was surprised by his reaction. It hadn’t been my intention to cause him grief. I only wanted to honor him for a couple of seconds. I pressed forward in hopes that his reaction was only temporary. “C’mon,” I begged him. “Please let us keep it. Please.”

I could tell that this was a situation he never thought he would have to face in his lifetime. He didn’t want to be mean to us, but he couldn’t get past feeling that our sign was inappropriate. He stumbled over his words in an attempt to handle this situation and be ready for a show that was only seconds away from starting. I’m honestly not sure what he said, though, because at that moment the band started playing the Conan theme song. Jeff turned around to face the stage.

In a last ditch effort I looked to Mike for help. I felt that if I could get him on our side then that was good enough validation for us to accomplish our mission. Fortunately, Mike immediately gave us two thumbs up and an expression that clearly said, “This is exactly what you should do.” Meanwhile, as all this had been happening, Jimmy Pardo had sat on the step next to our seats to watch the monologue. Mike told Jimmy to read the sign. Jimmy instantly agreed that the sign should stay. That, my friends, is democracy in action.

Here’s the quick video of Conan coming out to start the show. If you look closely near the end you’ll see our white banner appear from the left-hand side of your screen and settle at almost dead center:

Here’s a frame from that video. If you squint really hard you can see the three or four pixels that make up Lisa and me. Below us on the left is Jeff Ross, and on the right is Mike Sweeny. It’s impossible to read the sign unfortunately. We should have made the letters thicker:

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So, did Conan see the sign? Did he react? Yes, yes he did. In the beginning of the video below Conan is acknowledging a sign that a group in the first row on the stage left side of the audience section had brought. He then turned to acknowledge our sign, actually read it and…

Based on his reaction he either didn’t understand who we were referring to, or thought we were idiots. Let’s say, for the sake of my ego, that there was a lot of stuff going on, and deciphering our sign was a priority in his brain at that moment. I’d like to think that his smile a few seconds later was because he had figured out who the “Ross” was that we were talking about, but I’ll never know for sure since he didn’t feel the need to confirm it with us.

We sat down and quietly rolled up TEAM ROSS and unrolled TEAM ANDY. I didn’t dare try and get Jeff or Mike’s attention, but Jimmy was right next to me, so I showed him the next part of our plan. He told us bluntly that our mission was over and to put the sign away. So we did.

I didn’t think the monologue was as good as the one on Tuesday, but it was decent enough. Here was my favorite joke:

Yesterday in New York Anthony Weiner got into a heated argument in a bakery. Yeah, apparently the baker was mad Weiner brought in his own cannoli. [Audience groans] Folks, before you judge me, let’s remember this is a great Jewish holiday which is usually celebrated with laughter.

I ended up spending about a third of the monologue watching Jeff and Mike communicate after the audience had reacted to a certain joke. It was kinda interesting, honestly. It was pretty apparent when they were happy or disappointed with how a joke or a per-recorded sketch performed. For the most part they seemed content with how the jokes had gone over with the crowd.

The comedy segment was What Am I Watching. I thought this sketch was just ok when I originally saw it. Now that I’ve watched it a few times while writing this post I have to admit that it’s grown on me:

2013-09-05_Conan_05_ClappingDuring each commercial break Jeff would leave and either check in with Conan or hang around on the stage using his phone to, I’m assume, check email. I really wanted to follow up with him and explain why we had created the TEAM ROSS sign, but I knew that if I did I would most likely get us thrown out. So I sat still and hoped that he would feel some sort of desire to engage me in conversation.

One thing I learned while keeping my mouth shut and my hands by my side was that different segments of the show have different producers. I guess that makes sense, but it just never really occurred to me before. Mike stood with Jeff for the monologue and comedy segment portions of the show, but he was replaced at the podium with a different guy during the commercial break before the first couch guest came out. That guy was replaced before the second couch guest. And that guy was replaced before the musical guest. I didn’t recognize any of the people who stood in front of us after Mike. I could tell, however, that they all wanted to impress Jeff.

Speaking of who’s on first, Carl Reiner was the first couch guest. He is a comedy legend, and received a very long standing ovation from the audience. Our collective enthusiasm for Carl resulted in the best shot of Lisa and I on any late-night talk show that has ever been and that ever will be. The interview was terrific. Carl was funny, sincere, told some great stories and sang opera! It was amazing. Here’s as much of the interview as I can find. It’s totally worth watching:

Between guests, as the show was about to return from commercial, Jeff walked back to his podium and quickly said “thank you” to Lisa and I. It was obvious that he was still embarrassed, but the sentiment was genuine. For a split second I again considered trying to engage him in conversation, but didn’t.

Cheryl Hines was the second couch guest. She’s on the show Suburgatory. The interview was fine. Cheryl was pleasant and told an amusing story. The problem, which second guests inevitably face when going on after certain first guests, was that no matter what came out of her mouth it just wasn’t anywhere near as interesting as whatever Carl had discussed with Conan just a few minute earlier. That’s not entirely her fault, but it didn’t change the fact that I, at least, just couldn’t get in to her.

Delta Rae was the musical guest. They gave a great performance. Like Rory two days earlier, I’m glad I got to see them live:

After the show was over Conan had a quick meeting with his team. Then Jeff came back to the podium to collect his stuff and head out. This was it, the last opportunity I was going to have to engage Jeff in conversation. It was too late to kick me out, yet I did nothing. My admiration for him and desire to share a meal and talk about late-night television was going to have to wait for a day that was very unlikely to ever happen.

Jeff walked a few steps towards the exit before looking back at us and saying “thank you” again. He was too far away to say anything meaningful back to him, and he honestly didn’t look like he had any desire to talk to me, so I held out my hand and hoped for the best. He came back, shook it, gave me a slight grin and then got as far away from me as quickly as he could.

Conan sang his song, they kicked us out of the building, we walked back to the parking lot and drove back to our hotel.

In conclusion I think it’s fair to say that we saw two entertaining shows and had a superb overall experience.

Thanks for reading.

– Ben


Want to read about my other late-night audience member experiences? Well, if you ever change your mind, here they are:

My Late Show With David Letterman Experience

My Late Night With Jimmy Fallon Experience

My Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson Experience

My Tonight Show With Jay Leno Experience

My Second Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson Experience

My Late Night With Seth Meyers Experience

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