Conan O’Brien And Greg Daniels: The Friendship That Changed Comedy
There’s something strangely wholesome about finding out two of your favorite artists are close friends in real life. Some of these bonds defy all logic – for instance, did you know that Groucho Marx and Alice Cooper used to hang out together long into the night?
But the best celebrity bonds are the rare ones that start long before anyone gets famous and continue to the present day. Sure, there’s the Matt Damon and Ben Afflecks of the world, but our current favorite friendship is one that decisively altered the course of comedy history, where a couple buddies from a college comedy group both grew into absolute titans of TV comedy, only in very different ways.
Let’s take a walk down memory lane and examine the history of the friendship between a couple Harvard grads named Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels.
Both Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels are private about their personal lives, but we do know a couple key facts from their earliest years – Conan and Greg attended Harvard University in the same graduating class, the class of 1985. They became creative partners while writing for The Harvard Lampoon, the Ivy League’s longest running humor publication and progenitor of The National Lampoon.
The pair grew close during their time in college and, shortly after graduation, they resolved to drive out together to Los Angeles and start their careers together. According to Greg Daniels, “We shared a car, we shared an apartment, we shared an office, we shared a towel. We drove each other crazy.”
They also shared a manager who was able to get both Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels their first writing gig on Not Necessarily the News, a satirical sketch show based on that week’s headlines. The HBO program was a prototype for and inspiration of later programs such as The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Last Week Tonight.
Greg and Conan’s first writing gig also proved to be one of their briefest, as the duo were laid off shortly after their hiring due to budget restraints. For a short period of time, Conan and Greg were out of work, out of money roommates sharing an apartment and a towel with no clear next move. Greg took work as an SAT tutor and Conan worked as a typist at Wilsons House of Suede and Leather.
But the dry spell wouldn’t last forever, as Greg and Conan were yet again hired to work together on a late-night news comedy show called The Wilton North Report produced by Barry Sand, a man who Conan described as “smelling like microwaved yams.” The show was supposed to be an hour of straight comedy every night, no guests, no music, nothing to fill time and take the pressure off its fledgling writers.
The show was a disaster under Sand’s direction and was cancelled after just one season. Said Greg about the vision for the show, “ had a very ambitious plan for The Wilton North Report, which was supposed to be an hour a night with no musical guests or interviews. It was just all comedy segments for an hour a night, was his plan. And it destroyed itself very quickly… that was a weird experience where the show just exploded in the air in about a month. It was very interesting, though. I learned a lot about what not to do.”
After two back-to-back false starts in writing rooms, the pair was getting antsy to get their careers off the ground. Luckily, their manager arranged for them to land the ultimate interview – Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels met Lorne Michaels in late 1987, and the comedy kingmaker offered the duo a three week trial run on SNL.
Three weeks turned into three-to-four seasons, as both Conan and Greg impressed Lorne enough for him to let them stick around and write for the most prestigious show in comedy. Lorne threw the partners into the deep end, and the two navigated the waters of one of the most notoriously competitive and high-stress writers’ rooms in show business while crafting such classics as “Mr. Short Term Memory” and “The Girl Watchers,” both featuring Tom Hanks.
But the stresses of the biggest stage in comedy eventually got to both Greg and Conan – Daniels left the show in 1990, with O'Brien following him a year behind, both citing burnout as the reason for their decisions.
In the years following, Greg Daniels wrote an episode of Seinfeld – “The Parking Spot” in season three – while Conan honed the improv chops he had been working in his scarce downtime during his years at SNL. Conan joined the writing staff of The Simpsons in 1991 and wrote maybe the greatest episode of TV ever in “Marge vs. the Monorail”. Greg Daniels came to join the show in 1993 just as Conan was on the way out, and the mid 90’s would prove to be the most formative periods of both Conan and Greg’s careers – as they moved in different directions.
Conan knew that his true talents were meant to be seen onstage and on camera. He took to improv more than writing, and he believed that his comedic style was entirely visual – that he was more of a birthday clown working for laughs in the moment than a Mark Twain writing up witticisms from behind a desk.
When David Letterman left Late Night on NBC, Conan landed himself on the short list of candidates to replace him. Despite being an entirely non-traditional contender – no one thought that a non-stand up comedian could handle the late-night program – Conan dazzled with his charisma and courage, winning the job he would work for sixteen years.
Greg Daniels, on the other hand, hit his stride behind the scenes, and after three years on The Simpsons, he and his friend Mike Judge set out to create their own animated comedy on Fox about a family in middle-America – King of the Hill ran for 13 glorious seasons under executive producer Greg Daniels, a byline that would become a grade-A stamp of quality on TV comedies for the next two decades.
It’s incredible to see how well these two friends, partners, roommates, and towel-sharers did after their paths branched off in different directions. Considering the massive success they both enjoyed post-1993, it’s hard to imagine either of their careers going differently. Conan was destined to be the loud, gangly, ginger master of ceremonies that he evolved into during his almost 30 years in late-night, and Greg is perhaps the greatest behind-the-scenes maestro of TV comedy in the 21st century, despite the fact that Conan thought The Office would bomb.
As the saying goes, iron sharpens iron. The many years of friendship and partnership between two very different entertainment icons has paid major dividends for the quality of TV comedy. Hats off to the modern day writers' room's Abbott and Costello.
Top Image: NBC Universal
For exclusive ComedyNerd content, subscribe to our spiffy newsletter: