An Interview With Bill Tull: Prop Master At Conan, Part 1
Bill Tull is the prop master at Conan. He was previously the prop master at Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. He is one of only a dozen or so people who have worked with Conan for his entire run as a late-night talk show host.
Bill’s career in show business began in 1978 when a guy at a bachelor party asked if Bill wanted to work on Broadway as an electrician. “I started at the Minskoff Theater hanging lights and running cables for a show called Got to Go Disco, which is one of the biggest flops in the history of Broadway.”
That same guy “also worked up at NBC, so I started working up at NBC on Miss Universe and in the electric shop. Then, through that, I got some work on Saturday Night Live doing special effects.”
Bill left the business for a few years to work with his father building homes in Arizona. Upon returning to New York a position opened up in the NBC prop department. “I really took to it. Looking back I’d see these guys sitting there taking these phone calls for request for the most obscure and crazy stuff. I was in awe how these guys would just put the phone down and start looking for it, make a phone call and get it. It just intrigued me.”
“And then a show came up: House Party with Steve Doocy, and they gave me the show. It was taped in 8H where Saturday Night Live’s done, on the dark weeks of SNL.” When House Party wasn’t taping Bill continued working in the NBC prop department and doing “a lot of overflow for Saturday Night Live and other shows in the building.”
Eventually Bill became one of the two full-time prop guys at SNL. “The show is put together in three days. You don’t know what that show is until Wednesday night, when Lorne Michaels lets us know what’s going to be on and what’s not. So, Wednesday night, the set designers, who we worked hand-in-hand with, sit down and start designing stuff for a show on Saturday. It can be pretty hectic.”
“I worked there for two years, left and went back down to the NBC prop department. Then Late Night with Conan O’Brien happened, and NBC management referred me to the show as their prop guy.”
Ben: Before we start talking about Late Night, for those of us who aren’t in show business, what’s considered a “prop”?
Bill: If it’s handled, it’s a prop. Let’s say they designed a set, and it’s a bar. The art director is going to design a bar. The set dresser is going to go out and pick out the bar and any furnishings he wants — the back of the bar, stools. Props are things like the beer bottles on the bar that they’re actually drinking from or a bowl of peanuts. If you have a weapon, a motorcycle, a car, a plane, an animal, those are all props. Anything worn is a costume, even if it’s a night stick. You’d think that would be a prop but it’s wardrobe. It’s part of their thing.
Ben: You joined Late Night with Conan O’Brien as it was preparing to premiere in the fall of 1993. Did you have any sense as to what the show would be like?
Bill: I had no idea what it was going to be. When I went in to do Letterman for one summer he was well-established and I knew what I was in for. When I went in to do Saturday Night Live it had been there for years. Conan was all new.
I went up to 8H where they had set up a temporary talk show set; just a couple of flats with the desk and a guest chair. Conan was in there doing an interview with “Zaney” Dino Stamatopoulos, one of Conan’s writers. Conan was interviewing Dino as a sperm donor. This was the first taste that I got of what the show was going to be. Then I went into Conan’s studio at one point and the band was there playing this bizarre, crazy music, and I just said, “This is going to be fun.” I knew right away this was going to be good.
I couldn’t have imagined how much fun it was going to be. This show has really been a gas. It’s just been so much fun. In the beginning back in ’93 it was like the Wild West. Everybody was new; everybody was feeling their way. The concept of the show was kinda new. The writers appeared a little unruly, or so it seemed to me. They were just a really wild group of people.
On any given day you could walk down the hallway on the 6th floor where our studio was and see three little people, a camel, a couple of clowns, ponies, a nun and maybe a priest with a pitch fork, and it would be like nothing, like that was normal shit. That was just the norm.
We used to do a lot of different characters and different animals. They came to me one day, we were doing a spoof on the Valdez wreck up in Alaska, and they wanted an endangered bird covered in oil. It’s a costume, but wardrobe was too busy to do it. They came in and asked me if I would do it.
I sent a runner down to a costume store to get a costume rooster head. I got a leotard from wardrobe, and Mike Gordon, one of our writers who was to be the bird, got in this thing. I had a shitload of feathers in stock. So we’re hot-gluing turkey feathers down Mike’s arms. Right around his calves we put all feathers pointing downwards. It was more like an American Indian costume than anything else.
Then they said they really wanted him saturated in oil. So the only way I could figure out to do that — they needed this thing in, like, 20 minutes — I took some black spray paint, Krylon, and I held it really close to Michael. He would take a deep breath and I would spray this stuff so close it would run. This black Krylon spray paint is running all over his body. Then he’d wave his hand and have to run out and grab some air, and then come back in again for more.
It went out on stage, and it had to be the most ridiculous looking thing you’d ever seen in your life, but it was part of the beauty of the show. It’s just so Little Rascal-ish, you know, just winging it. Boy, I tell you, we just threw together so much stuff. We sent some pretty bizarre props out on that stage.
We were doing so much stuff. David Letterman came on our show that first year, and he said to Conan, “I’m exhausted when I see your show. I know what it takes to do what you guys are doing, and it’s exhausting to see.” We were going all the time and breaking a lot of rules to get the show on.
They came to me one day at, like, 2:00 and said, “Bill, we need you for a remote. We’re leaving in 15 minutes.” I go, “Okay, what is it?” They go, “You’re going to take Vomiting Kermit to the St. Patrick’s Day parade down on 5th avenue. We want you to get up to the front and have Kermit puke on the parade.”
“Well, this is great,” I said. “You know how long people have been waiting out there saving those spots up front and how deep they are? They’re like ten, twelve people deep, and the people who are in the front aren’t giving me their spot.” They go, “Let’s just see what we can do.”
They dressed me in this green hat, maybe an Irish sweater or something. I had Kermit on my shoulder, with hoses going down from Kermit’s butt to these tanks on a dolly filled with green soup, and two special effects guys.
The camera is on a step ladder behind the crowd on one side of 53rd street and 5th, and I’m right across 53rd. I’m trying to maneuver my way up front. What do you say to people who have been there for twelve hours? What do you say to ’em? I didn’t know. I didn’t have time to think about it. But I got up there with the two special effects guys and the dolly following me.
Now I get up there, and I’m standing next to two women, and they are looking at me like they don’t like me. I haven’t said one word to them, but they don’t like me. I had an earphone on so they’re telling when they’re going to be going. I asked, “How do you want me to play this?” They go, “Just deadpan it. No matter what Kermit does, just stand there and watch the parade like there’s no Kermit on your shoulder.”
Finally they said, “Okay, go.” I tell the special effects guys, and we spew all the shit out there, and it lands right at the heels of a woman cop. She was standing with her back to me about twenty feet away. I didn’t think it was going to go that far.
Now the woman to my left, she’s fucking yelling at me for disrespecting St. Patrick. I’m just playing total straight face. This lady is yelling at me, the cop has turned around and is now coming at me, and I’m still totally ignoring everybody with Kermit up on my shoulder.
So, the cop is now right here yelling at me, and I’m ignoring her and watching the parade. The woman to my left is still yelling at me for disrespecting St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m totally ignoring her. And in my ear they go, “We want to get one more.” I’m going, “Oh, boy.”
The cop turns around and leaves. She just walked away because she thought I was just some nut. Right after, as she was walking away, she’s about six, seven feet away from me, Kermit throws up again and it lands right by her feet again, with some on her shoes and pants.
At that point I told the guys at the other end of the microphone, “I’m outta here.” The cop comes up; she’s got her radio out. I turn around and I go to the special effects people, “Disconnect me. I’m getting the fuck out of here, and I advise you do the same thing.” They disconnected the hoses and we all took off through the crowd.
Ben: That’s a fantastic story.
Bill: Yeah, that was a funny one.
Ben: I’m amazed you guys didn’t get in trouble.
Bill: Believe me, I thought I was going to jail.
Ben: Were you ever in a bit where you had to be on-stage in front of the audience?
Bill: Yeah, I was in little bits here and there. One time I had to pat my head. Another time I pulled a bird out of my mouth. Just me standing there doing stupid stuff.
My day is basically ruined if I have to go into the studio. Yeah, I hate it. I really do. I went out there one time with Conan. They wanted me to be a body double so they could block Mayor Koch. They called me and said, “Bill, can you do us a favor and come in and just stand where Koch is going to stand?” I said, “Sure.” They started holding up cue cards. I started reading these things. I read like in monotone. There’s no feeling. There was no nothing. It was the flattest read that you could imagine. The entire studio and the control room just started laughing, and Conan looked at me and said, “Bill, you gotta sell this.” I just said, “This is not my thing.” I don’t like being in front of the camera.
Ben: Were you the only one doing props for Late Night?
Bill: In the beginning, but then the set designer insisted that I get somebody to help me. I knew I was going to have to get an assistant; I just didn’t want to go in crying wolf. I didn’t really know what the job was going to entail. I probably only lasted about three weeks before I hired someone.
Ben: Was it John Rau, or were there other prop guys before him?
Bill: I think John came in around ’95 or ’96 if I remember it correctly. We’ve been working here together since then.
Ben: In 2009, after sixteen years at Late Night, you, along with most of the people involved with the show, packed up and moved to Los Angeles for Conan’s new gig as host of The Tonight Show. You had worked in New York City for a long time, what were your thoughts on moving to LA?
Bill: I’d been working in the city since ’87. My first reaction was that I didn’t really want to go. I remember I talked to Jeff Ross, our producer, and said, “Jeff, this is just so weird, the thought of going.” He goes, “Yeah, it is. Just go.” Then he walked away, and I went.
Ben: Could you have returned to the NBC prop room and continued to work there as you had before Late Night?
Bill: Nothing would have been the same. Really this show — I can’t say enough how much fun the show has been — I think anything other than this would be pretty dull. I just don’t think I would’ve had the passion. That’s how unique the show is. It’s an amazing group of people to work with. And so many people who work on the show now, who haven’t been around it as much as me, have said that. They’ve only been here a short period of time and they’re saying how unique it is. It’s amazing. It really is.
Ben: Conan was very successful at Late Night, so there was a lot of anticipation for his Tonight Show debut. What was it like during the months before the premiere when everyone was moving out to LA and preparing the new show?
Bill: I was really surprised when we got out here how big a deal it was. Maybe it was because I figured that Hollywood would be so huge how could we be that big of a thing. Whatever it was it was just a little strange, the reception we got. NBCUniversal built this big five-story building with a big studio, and new control rooms, and a fifth floor deck with a fireplace. It was cool.
Conan was a big deal; I’ve just always looked at us as a bunch of people working together. I’ve always kept a pretty good perspective. It’s a job. I like to leave my job at the end of the day. It is a job that comes along with a bunch of interesting stories that people love to hear, but for the most part I like to be able to leave the job at the job.
Bill: I would have to say that Late Night, and Conan now, are a little more fun. Being at that time slot with The Tonight Show I think kinda restricted the writers; it just seemed to be more serious. I keep thinking of the Little Rascals. We just used to have so much fun. The Tonight Show was fun but it just… I don’t know, that happened so damn quick and it was over so quick, I really didn’t have time to think too much about it. It wasn’t the same, I can tell you that.
Ben: For those of us who were fans of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, the rumors that it was going to be cancelled after less than a year were heart breaking. I can only imagine what that time was like for you.
Bill: I disassociated myself with it all the best I could. There was so much talk going on. There was so much speculation going on amongst us on the show. Everywhere you turned there was a group of people talking, and everybody was speculating what was happening and what was going to happen. I would join some of these sessions talking about it, and I’d walk away just more frustrated than before I got there. I finally stopped engaging.
Everybody was really bummed out. I was not happy about it, but it’s the nature of this business that anything could happen. Any show can go down. I accepted that a long time ago when I went into this business. Working on Broadway, shows were coming and going all the time. What I thought were going to be big hits on Broadway were flops that were gone after opening night. This one in particular, Billy Bishop Goes to War, was a great two-man show. I would have bet money on it. It closed after opening night.
I really felt that Conan would rebound somewhere. I never was really that concerned. I just took the ride. What’s going to happen is going to happen. Sit back and hope for the best.
Ben: What was life like for you after The Tonight Show ended?
Bill: Fortunately Conan gave us money to live on for a while. That softened the blow. And then, soon after it all ended, he announced the Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour, and I worked on pulling it together. I worked with the art director, went to production meetings, propped stuff and did remotes. That kept me busy for a little time, but I didn’t go on the tour, that was a minimal crew.
But it was tough. I remember being at a party one night at one of the producer’s houses. I walked up to one of the writers and asked, “What are you doing with your time?” He literally moaned. He rolled his eyes and moaned. Nobody was prepared to have that much free time. You like to think that you would know what to do if you didn’t have a job to go to, but work is part of our lives. To be put in a situation where you wake up every day with no job to go to is not easy. It really isn’t. Towards the end I got a little squirrely. I’d play a little golf and that was getting old; just waking up with no job, it’s strange.
Ben: Was there ever a point where you thought about getting another job somewhere else, or leaving LA and heading back to New York?
Bill: No, I never thought once about leaving. We knew Conan was looking for something. I just sat back and waited. I just weathered out the storm.
Ben: When Conan began did you basically pick up where you left off with The Tonight Show?
Bill: Yeah. Nothing’s changed much. We’re like old dogs here, you know what I mean? I’m not saying that in a bragging kinda way. It’s hard to throw us. It’s hard to shock us. There’s not too many things they can ask for that really faze us at all. We’ve been through a lot.
Ben: And on top of all that you star in an ongoing bit called “Bill Tull’s Tips,” which I really enjoy watching. How did that bit start?
Bill: I’m guessing that it was the “Audiencey Awards.” They came to me in New York and they wanted me to do this bit on how it was made. The “Audiencey” was an ongoing thing, so they thought to enhance it they would show how it was made. One of the writers came up with this idea, I think it was Jose.
So I was at my desk. I had a big can of tuna fish, some spray paint, some duct tape, a GI Joe, and I just sat there and said, “Yeah, you take the can of tuna fish and put the da da da…” Then I went, “Boom. Audiencey.” Then years later out here on this show somebody came up with an idea for “Tull’s Tips” that ended with “Boom” as well.
Ben: Do you enjoy doing them?
Bill: Yeah. Yeah, you know, here in the prop room, away from the studio and the audience. Yeah, the tips are fun. They’re ridiculous.
Ben: You did one for Cinco De Mayo last year which was hilarious. A few months later the Team Coco website published Conan’s rehearsal for that bit, which was also very funny. While watching the rehearsal clip I was surprised to see that you had done a bunch of tips that didn’t make it into the show that night. Is that common?
Bill: Yeah, a lot of the tips don’t. We do a bunch, and then Conan shows them in the rehearsal, and he’ll say, “Let’s do this, this, this and this,” which can happen with a lot of different bits. Like “Coffee Table Books That Didn’t Sell,” we’ll do fifteen of them in rehearsal, then he’ll have six on air.
Ben: Before “Bill Tull’s Tips” started you were in a bit where you offered Prince William and Kate Middleton your home while they visited Los Angeles back in 2011.
Was that your actual apartment in those photos?
Ben: At the end you, your housekeeper and “love child” are introduced to the audience. It was only a few seconds, but from what you said earlier, I’m guessing you didn’t enjoy being on stage.
Bill: Yeah. That was done in the studio and I didn’t like that. I just don’t like being in front of the audience.
Ben: Have you ever refused to be in a bit that might require being on stage?
Bill: No. No I haven’t.
Ben: You do “Bill Tull’s Tips” here in the prop room we’re currently talking in. This room contains tons of cool stuff. One thing you don’t have a lot of, however, is space.
Bill: No, we don’t. I’m flirting with danger here. If this place gets an earthquake I’m going to be hurting.
Ben: Did the prop room at Late Night look about the same?
Bill: It looked similar to this, but four or five times as big. You had to see this place; it was really cool. In New York, NBC had this VIP tour — they had tours at 30 Rock—but there was a VIP tour you could go on with up to six people. It was like a thousand dollars. They saw things that the other tours didn’t. NBC came to me one day and asked if they could bring the VIP tour into Conan’s prop room as part of the tour.
I said, “Come in whenever you want, but be prepared for some bad language and be prepared to be pushed out of the way a little bit. Yeah, come in and dodge us. I don’t care.” They used to bring the tours in there and we would stop and talk to them, or if we were in the middle of building something crazy they would just walk around us and we would work around them. It was fun. We made it as much fun as possible for the tour.
I remember the very first tour that came in was a guy and his wife. I came over and was talking to ‘em, and they were asking me some questions, and the phone rang. I walked over and took the phone call, and it was Ann from graphics. She was looking for horse testicles in a jar. I said, “Ann, I don’t have time right now so I’m going to put you on with somebody. Just tell them what you need.” I give the phone to the guy’s wife. She’s going to her husband, “Honey, they want horse testicles.”
Thanks for reading. Part 2 is now available. If you’d like to hear a few more of Bill Tull’s prop master adventures then I strongly recommend listening to Bill’s 2012 interview on the Team Coco Podcast. You can also watch all the bits with Bill Tull here on the Team Coco website.
This conversation has been condensed and edited from an interview conducted on August 31, 2014.
My immense gratitude to Bill Tull for his time, enthusiasm and editing.
A huge thanks to Kurt Decker helping to make this interview happen.