Home » First PersonSpring 2011

Arts and Science Shaped the Mind of This Late-Night TV Comedy Writer (Seriously)

by Matt O'Brien, BA'01 No Comment

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you’ve resisted the urge to throw yet another alumni mailing directly into the nearest trash or recycling bin. I don’t blame you. Reading that opening sentence was the longest either of us has ever gone without Vanderbilt asking for money. How many more student centers and nude marble carvings of Jay Cutler can the campus possibly hold?

I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t given Vanderbilt a dime post-graduation. Sure, they’ve asked for money, even angrily at times. I was mailed a picture of Cornelius Vanderbilt holding a chainsaw with the words “See you at Homecoming” scrawled across the top in pheasant blood. But for whatever reason (crippling student loan debt), I still haven’t managed to send that generous check the university so rightfully deserves. I feel bad about it. Truth is, my Vanderbilt education has served me well. It’s helped me navigate the viper’s nest of show business, and ultimately, land a job writing for Conan O’Brien (no relation).

How I got to Conan is another story in itself, and I won’t bore you with the details. No, on second thought, I will. They want this article to be around 1,000 words. I need filler. Sorry.

Above left: Comic geniuses (i.e., writers) toil over the script for that day’s Conan show. Matt O’Brien is far right. Host Conan O’Brien is at far left. Above right: For some reason, Conan O’Brien (right) loves punching Matt O’Brien (no relation. No, really.).



Shortly after graduating from the College of Arts and Science in 2001 with a degree that combined communication studies and computer science (plug), I moved to New York City to pursue comedy. Through a bit of luck and timing, I was hired as an entry-level assistant at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The position was the bottom rung on the ladder, the pay was Falkland Islands bad (plug), but it was a chance to see how smart, irreverent comedy was distilled from the inside. I was a doe-eyed fool watching Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carrell perform and write comedy better than I could ever hope to. It was equally intimidating and inspiring.

For five years, I churned slowly in New York and developed a sense of what it took to be a writer—lofty intelligence and an untreated serotonin deficiency. Like every other comedian in the city, I was looking for a break. Then through happenstance I met Robert Smigel, the godfather of comedy writing (Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Conan O’Brien). Maybe he was drunk, maybe his Jewish guilt was inflamed, or maybe he didn’t understand the question, but when I asked if I could pitch him some jokes for his popular character Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, he said yes. Even better, he ended up using some of my jokes on television. It was a small break, but a break nonetheless, and it would continue to grow.

I left The Daily Show and was hired to write on several short-lived shows you’ve never heard of. Some jobs would last six months, others six hours. All that really mattered was gaining experience as a writer and getting laid (not true). Then in late 2007, a much bigger break came my way. Conan.

I had watched Late Night with Conan O’Brien almost every night of my life since ninth grade. It was a sad reflection of my social life, and my parents agreed. I carried the habit to college, and in my Lupton Hall freshman dorm room, above my desk, sat a poster of Conan. I idolized the guy. His show had set the pace for an entire generation of comedy writers. Working deep in the Roker-haunted bowels of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and writing for Conan—it just doesn’t get more exciting than that.

I’ve been writing for Conan for four years now and still consider it a privilege. I slink into work, sift through the news, whittle out a funny idea (add fart sounds to Karzai interview), and sometimes it’s broadcast on national television 12 hours later. Letters pour in expressing outrage over the controversial Karzai fart interview. My life is threatened. Then Charlie Sheen buys and snorts the ashes of Bea Arthur, and everyone moves on. Still, it’s a lot of fun. Getting paid to do it is surreal.

Turns out liberal arts, the disheveled, right-brained uncle of curriculum theory, holds its weight outside the shadow of Cornelius.

In 2009, I moved with Conan to Los Angeles when he took over The Tonight Show. Yes, that Tonight Show, the Mount Olympus of comedy. An untouchable institution. Who better to take the reins than Conan, one of the smartest and acclaimed funnymen of our time? As a writer, The Tonight Show was the job that would never go away.

Then it did. Jay Leno’s primetime show dragged in the ratings, NBC executives retreated to the fetal position, and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien lasted only nine months. We all lost our jobs.

Luckily, the whole ordeal yielded new opportunities. I toured the country with Conan for two months on his Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television tour. Thirty-three cities in 60 days. My job was to write local jokes at each stop, usually about an ugly statue or the local stripper who crushes beer cans between her breasts (plug). Then TBS gave Conan a new show and we got our jobs back. Life returned to normal. End of scene.

Finally comes the part of the article where I shoehorn in specific examples of how a Vanderbilt education played an instrumental part in my success. It did. The most important skill for any comedian or comedy writer is a vast frame of reference, and the only way to get it is through a thorough and well-rounded education. I got that in the College of Arts and Science. Turns out liberal arts, the disheveled, right-brained uncle of curriculum theory, holds its weight outside the shadow of Cornelius. The majority of classes I dismissed as teaching me “crap I’ll never use,” have turned out to be an exceptionally valuable asset.

When I need to write a joke about gully erosion (Geology 100) or Plessy vs. Ferguson (Communication Studies 222) on the same day, I’ll be ready. Thanks Vandy, check’s in the mail.

photo credit: Meghan Sinclair/Team Coco

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