An Interview With Bill Tull: Prop Master At Conan, Part 2
Ben: Do you enjoy building props from scratch?
Bill: Yeah, it’s fun. They came to me the day before Thanksgiving and wanted a Hemi engine for a float. We always taped on Thanksgiving Day, and the show wanted to do a Macy’s Day parade through the studio. One of the floats required was this huge Hemi engine. I remember leaving this meeting, it was 3:00, and this is for the next day.
I went into a prop room, a storage room that we shared with Saturday Night Live, and cut off a bunch of blue wires that were coming across the ceiling. They were the perfect thickness for spark plug wires. I proceeded to cut these off, and then afterwards noticed that each of them had a little number on them. For somebody, somewhere, I just ruined their day, because they would never be able to trace these wires again cause I took the numbers out. God only knows where they led to.
We found two terracotta-looking, but plastic, flower pots that made perfect head covers. We borrowed two of those from Saturday Night Live. We used a Quaker Oats can for like a generator or something. We had metal bread baskets for air cleaners, and painted Sonatubes sticking up as exhaust pipes. The engine block we made out of foam core. When finished it really looked great.
Ben: Do you make stuff out of food too?
Bill: Yeah we do a lot of food. Our budget in the very beginning was really nothing. If they wanted caviar, I’d go up to the super market and buy the really cheap caviar, or I used to buy a lot of poppy seeds and mix it with olive oil, and take toast and cut little triangles and put the caviar on that, with a little hardboiled egg and other garnishing. We would make things like that. Whole feasts we’d put together with food from the cafeteria.
Who is the president that puked?
Ben: Bush? The first president Bush?
Bill: Yeah. Didn’t he puke over in Japan? We did a reenactment of that, but in our version he puked all over everybody at his table. We had somebody in there playing Bush. He threw up all over the place, just one of those real mad scenes where his puke is going everywhere. We had twelve or fifteen dignitaries in suits, you know, actors, and wardrobe came to me and wanted to know how we could do this without ruining all the suits.
Ben: Is there a way?
Bill: I found a way: bok choy. I asked them for some fabric, and I kept mixing shit, I just tried different stuff. Bok choy has got a little green, has got texture, and mix that with water and sure enough it washed out perfectly. But the bok choy got foul really quick. I think they postponed it to the next day, and the smell the next day was horrible.
Ben: Do you and John ever just sit there, and some prop request comes in, and you just roll your eyes and go, “Jezz”?
Bill: Oh yeah. ”This is gonna be fun.” A lot. We just laugh sometimes.
Ben: I’d think those would be some pretty stressful days.
Bill: Here’s the deal: you can only do what you can do. You can only get done what you can possibly get done, and you give it a shot and you give them the best you’ve got. Fortunately, I’ve worked for a production staff that understands this. They don’t take it for granted. They don’t abuse you. They ask you for what you can give them.
The worst thing you can do is freak out over a request, because then you’re not thinking about getting it done, you’re just thinking about how crazy it is. You got to remember that you can only get done what you can get done. It is possible that what they’re asking for is not possible. But I don’t want to think about that either until I at least give it a shot. Usually you end up getting something, come hell or high water. Many times all departments work together to pull shit together.
Ben: Do you ever watch the show while it’s taping to see the stuff that you had built being used in a bit?
Bill: Yeah. There are plenty of nights where I go home and watch bits again, because you know what you went through building the silly thing. There are days where we’re just running around like chickens with the heads cut off pulling shit together last minute.
Ben: Are there also times when you can put in all that effort and build something that eventually doesn’t make it on the show?
Bill: Sure. Happens all the time. Whole sets. It’s not just props. Conan will see it in rehearsal and it’s just not what he thought it was going to be, or it needs to be tweaked, so it won’t make it that day. Then they’ll try it again and it still won’t do. There are things that have never made air. Yeah, a lot of stuff. And pretty quickly you learn to just laugh at these things. It’s the nature of the beast.
Ben: You have a budget, and some of that money is spent purchasing props. What happens to those props after the bit is done?
Bill: John and I are pretty frugal with what we do. Most things that you see in here we keep until we need space. When we need space we’ll go through stuff and say, “You know what, this hasn’t been used in three or four years, we’re going to get rid of this.” We’ll put it out on a table and people take it home if they want it, or we give things to prop houses where we have access to them in the future.
Ben: Over the years both Late Night and Conan have done shows on location in different cities like Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas. Are those fun to do?
Bill: Yeah. They’re really fun. They’re hectic, but fun. You’re in a city where you’re not used to working. At home you have your sources for props and for supplies to build props, and when you’re in these cities you’re just winging it.
We went to Toronto for a week of shows. They have the CN Tower with an observation deck on it like the Space Needle in Seattle. Prior to going up there we built the two towers, the Seattle and Toronto towers. They were going to fight each other. But, once there, the writers decided they wanted them to mud wrestle.
These things were fourteen feet high costumes with people inside them. So we had to come up with some kind of a mud wrestling pit for two giant costumes. That was no problem; I had this scenery shop build me this giant wooden plywood tub that we lined with plastic. Where do you get the mud? Mud isn’t what you think it is. It’s not dirt and water; it takes soil with clay and other shit in it, and I couldn’t find any. At all.
So I went to a baker and asked for help with something that if I ran my hand through it would stick to my hand. He sold me this special type of flour and powdered cocoa, that when mixed together with some water it made this really slick shit that stuck to you. The problem was getting rid of it when we’re done with it. This mud wrestling pit was a good twelve feet wide by sixteen feet long and eight inches deep filled with this shit. That’s a lot of mud. I ended up getting one of these septic tank pumping trucks. They came in at, like, ten o’clock at night, that’s how we did it. We had them come in and just suck all that shit out.
But this is all done in the spur of the moment, and you’re in a city where you don’t know anybody or where anything is. We just wing it. We just do the best we can. And there’s always, always last minute shit. Always.
Ben: You’ve worked with a lot of writers over the past twenty-plus years. Have there been any that you didn’t get along with?
Bill: Yeah, there have been a couple I haven’t seen eye to eye with. A couple that were a pain in the ass.
One of the writers came up with an idea for a hospitality robot. This was back in New York. This robot had to come up a ramp on to home base, turn and deliver a can of Coke to the guest. I went up to this particular writer’s office — he hated to be asked questions — with a pad and a pen. When I left that office I had a sketch of a fifty-five gallon distressed drum with a spaghetti strainer antenna that twirled around up top, gauges and a mouse trap door with an old-fashioned wooden ski with a Coke on it that came out in two stages to clear the table. That was the robot. This sketch was the product of an hour’s worth of questions.
Our budget back then was nothing, so I hired a couple of young kids from Brooklyn who came in and were building this thing up from scratch. They were supplying all the servos, and I had the skis, the drum and the spaghetti strainer, all that stuff. They’re making it all work. We’re working on this thing for like two weeks, on and off, and were doing it as cheap as possible. So people had seen this; it was around.
The day this is going to be on the show — and this tells you how far back this was, this was when Robert Smigel was still the head writer — at one o’clock, we come out, and this thing comes up on the stage. Conan’s behind his desk, Smigel’s sitting in the guest chair. It turns, out comes the ski, and the ski extends another length, and there is the Coke. Smigel grabs the Coke and says to me, “This is supposed to be a toaster oven.”
I looked over at this frickin’ writer. and he wouldn’t look at me. I go, “What do you mean toaster oven?” Smigel says, “Yeah, this is supposed to be a toaster oven, and the door opens and brings the Coke out.” I just said, “Get it out of here.”
We’re walking down the hall and I go to the robot guy, “If I can get you this thing disassembled, and get you a toaster oven up here, do you think you can have this thing ready to go by five?” He said, “Yeah, I do.” I sent my runner down to Macy’s to get the biggest toaster oven he could get, and get it back up here ASAP. We take this thing apart. We build the base up a little higher for the toaster oven. Doggie comes in with the toaster oven. These guys got the servos going. The door opens by remote control, the tray comes out, there’s the Coke.
At five o’clock we take this thing back in the studio. Conan’s not there, but Smigel was sitting in the guest chair. The robot comes up, turns, the door opens, the tray comes out, and there’s the Coke. Smigel takes the Coke and he says, “This is supposed to be an old-fashioned toaster oven.” I said, “That’s it. This thing is not making the show. I’m done.” I can remember leaving there shaking my head, and at the same time, kinda laughing. We eventually did it if I remember correctly. I’m pretty sure we did.
Ben: Speaking of Robert Smigel, what’s it like working with that guy?
Bill: He’s a character. He’s quite an experience.
Ben: His “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog” segments are hilarious.
Bill: Those are like going into a war zone. I’ve seen some stuff. Some people have gotten angry. Quebec City was really rough. Robert went to Quebec City with Triumph the week before the shows we did in Toronto. The Canadian government had given us a large amount of money to come up there and do our show to help the economy there. And after, people were protesting our theater for us to return the money because a percentage of Canadians thought we had mistreated the people in Quebec City. I remember being down in the production office below the theater when they aired that the first time. I was really uncomfortable with what I saw. These poor old people that didn’t speak English, Triumph was eating them up.
Ben: That reminds me of when Robert took Triumph to Queens during the World Cup. He would be in front of large groups of drunk fans relentlessly making fun of them and their teams. I really thought he was going to get his ass kicked.
Bill: We did those in New York and then ended up in Brazil. Our props are still stuck down there in customs. Yeah, they won’t give ‘em back to us.
He’s in his own world when he’s doing “Triumph.” We did Occupy Wall Street. We had made a twenty-five foot tall Triumph like a Macy’s Day parade balloon. This thing weighed a couple of hundred pounds; it was really awkward to get around. John and I are dragging this thing around; we’ve got dollies underneath it. Robert wanted to have this thing humping the bull down on Wall Street.
We’re down there at like six in the morning. They’ve got the bull barricaded off, and there’s two cops inside the barricades guarding it. We don’t have a permit. I go over to this one cop, I’m just kinda schmoozing with him a little bit, and I’m going, “Here’s the deal. We’ve got this thing here we’re doing for Conan O’Brien. We can probably have this thing in there and out of there in twenty-five minutes tops, probably less.” He’s like, “I don’t know.” I said, “You know man, c’mon, make my day.” He goes, “Okay.”
So, he’s going to let us in. I go over and I get the Triumph with John. Now Robert has come over, and he’s got Triumph on his arm and he’s busting this cop’s balls. The guy is going, “Get your cameras off me.” Robert just kept on him and kept on him. I said, “Robert, hold on Robert.” He’s just ignoring me. As the cop’s walking away he goes “You ain’t coming in now.” I just looked at Robert.
Mike Sweeny, John and I had to go to a precinct. I think we kept Robert out of there; pretty sure we kept him out. And we went in and they gave us a permit. They let us do it. We were able to go back down and shoot it. It took us two hours by the time we got back down there again.
Then they wanted Triumph blown up later in the day on Park Avenue where there were thousands of demonstrators protesting a bank. All these bankers were up in these big glass windows looking down on the demonstrators on the street. He wanted Triumph blown up out there, and, again, we have no permit.
I mean, there’s eighty cops going around. They don’t want a fucking twenty-five foot blow up dog, with a giant bow tie, in the middle of all these demonstrators while they’re dealing with this shit. They don’t want to hear from us. They don’t want more crazy shit. I really thought we were going to jail. I said to John, “Be prepared to go to jail. The show will bail us out, but count on it, we’re going in.” We blew the Triumph up, and the cops kicked us out. We didn’t get arrested.
He can be mischievous, I’ll tell ya.
Ben: Conan has interviewed thousands of celebrities on his show. Have you ever had the desire to meet and talk to any of them?
Bill: No. You need to remember that they’re at the show working just as you are. If every person working on the show had celebrities they wanted to meet, they would be hammered all day long. We have to provide a safe environment for these people away from all that.
There have been a few times where I’ve gone to the segment producers, who are in charge of the guests, and given them a baseball or something to autograph for someone. That’s usually, “Do you think this person would mind? Is this a big deal? If not, could you get it signed, this person would really appreciate it. If not, no big deal.”
Kris Kristofferson was on the show once. A good friend of mine, Cuddy, used to drink a lot with Kris. I was in the bathroom on the 6th floor, and Kris came in. We were both standing at the urinals and I said, “You know, we have a mutual friend.” He said, “Who’s that?” I go, “Cuddy.” He goes, “Holy shit. Cuddy?” I go, “Yeah.”
Kris told me this story, he said, “The first time I met Cuddy was at The Bitter End, and he was standing there as I was going in to do the show, and he goes, ‘Hey, Kristofferson. You know who my favorite singer is?’ I go, ‘No. Who?’ Cuddy goes, ‘Dylan.’” Then he mentioned about three or four other singers, then Kris. So he put Kris fifth on his all-time list. Kris goes, “So that was the first time I met him.”
Kris goes, “How the hell is he doing?” I said, “He’s alright. Did you want to talk to him? I can give him a call if you want to meet me after the show and come back to the prop room.” He goes, “Yeah, I’d love to.”
I went out to get him, and his entourage was trying to rush him out of the building; he had somewhere to go. I said, “Kris, you still want to speak to Cuddy?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, just real quick.” He came down. There’s a wall phone right inside the door of the prop room, and I called Cuddy. I go, “Cuddy! Here,” and then I hand Kris the phone. They talked for twenty, thirty minutes. He was just carrying on and on and on.
That was the one and only time I approached a celebrity.
Ben: What do you like to do when you’re not working on Conan?
Ben: You mentioned to me that you maybe have a year or two left here at Conan before you retire. Do you have any plans after that?
Bill: I’d like to build a stable from scratch and then convert it into a house. You have to start with a stable before you can live in a converted one. Years ago my mother rented and lived in a stable that had been converted. We all loved being in there: one stall was a dining room, one stall was a kitchen, the tack room was a TV room, one stall was a bedroom, and we all loved it.
This was 30 years ago, and I’ve always thought about it. I’ve been looking for places to buy. I said, “Why not just build one?” I’ve been working on a set of plans. One day I would like to build it in either Vermont or New Hampshire, where there’s also many beautiful roads for the Porsche.
Ben: Thank you so much for talking with me, Bill. You’re stories have been absolutely fantastic to listen to. You’ve had an incredible career and I’ve really enjoying talking with you about it.
Bill: It’s been fun, man. It’s been a really, really good ride. It truly has. I feel fortunate. I can’t imagine too many people having this much fun with their job. It’s the truth. The variety is what makes this so great. We never know what we’re going to get bombed with the day we come in here. Never. Anything could happen. Anything, and it makes it exciting. It’s not boring. It’s not monotonous.
There is just something really cool about working on this show. I’ve told people a hundred times, if not a thousand, that in twenty-something years of working on Conan O’Brien’s show I’ve never once come to work and said, “This sucks.” Not once. There have been many days where I would have rather been doing something else, but once here I never, ever, said, “This sucks.” It’s just an amazing job. It’s been just an amazing run for me working with Jeff, Conan and such a great production staff. It’s amazing.
Thanks for reading. 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.