Late Night with Conan O’Brien: How it all began (for me, anyway)

I’m celebrating Late Night‘s 20th anniversary! This is part 1 of many!

Click the image to watch the very first episode of "Late Night."

Click the image to watch the very first episode of “Late Night.”

On September 13, 1993, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” made its debut on NBC, where it would run for almost 16 years, until February 20, 2009.

The show is today mostly talked about in terms of the two events that bookmark it: the battle over who would replace Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” (it was Leno), and the conflict over who would replace Leno on “The Tonight Show” (it was… Leno).

I was too young and on the wrong continent to know about the history of Late Night. I was aware of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson through references in pop culture, but I had never seen it. Same with Letterman, although I would later find out that German Late Night host Harald Schmidt had, for decades, modeled not only his shows but his whole persona on Letterman, right down to facial expressions and little hand gestures. (Even his set was more than inspired by that of Dave’s Late Show, leading Conan O’Brien to remark what a weird experience it was to appear on Schmidt’s show in 1997.)

As you may have heard me go on and on about, I have been drawn to the English language from an early age. Maybe it was to rebel, or maybe German is just that hard, I’m not sure. In any case, there were four English-language TV stations back then, and I watched them all: MTV Europe (Ray Cokes!), CNN International (Larry King), BBC World News (Talking Movies) and the NBC Super Channel, later boringly renamed NBC Europe.

NBC Europe was my first foray into undubbed American TV comedy, including sitcoms. You may not know this if you’re not German – and even many Germans I know still haven’t fully realized it – but the process of dubbing over anything means that any or all quality, or humor, or content, really, is reduced to a smoldering pile of lowest common denominator-ashes. And this NBC didn’t air “Seinfeld” or “Friends,” but stuff like “Mr. Rhodes,” a show no one needs to remember but one that I’d still prefer to the dubbed “Cosby Show” or “Family Matters” on the other channels.

My memory’s a little fuzzy so it’s hard to come up with an exact timeline, but I know that I started watching Leno first – for the simple reason that it was on earlier and I had to go to bed when it was over – and then Conan. I’ll guesstimate that I was watching “Late Night” every night by 1998 or 99, when I was around 16.

And I became obsessed with it.

Not only did it present me with something I wanted to watch, but something I wanted to be.


More to come. Meanwhile, here‘s a great collection of “Late Night” clips.

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