An Oral History of the Conan O’Brien Sketch ‘Frankenstein Wastes a Minute of Our Time’
During its 16-year run on NBC, Late Night with Conan O’Brien featured one memorable character after another — from the Masturbating Bear, to Vomiting Kermit, to the always ill-timed Interrupter. Frankenstein, though, deserves to be part of the Conan pantheon, too (especially given the season).
And some of the best Frankenstein appearances were in the recurring sketch “Frankenstein Wastes a Minute of Our Time,” during which, true to its name, Frankenstein would bring O’Brien and the audience on a journey down the halls of 30 Rock that would inevitably conclude with him showing them something entirely unimpressive, like a plastic fork or a half-eaten bagel.
Frankenstein was played by longtime Conan writer Brian Stack. Stack, in fact, portrayed a number of Conan characters, including Artie Kendall the Ghost Crooner and Hannigan the Traveling Salesman. Meanwhile, the sketch was the brainchild of another veteran Conan writer, Brian McCann, aka Preparation H Raymond and the FedEx Pope, who, along with Stack, recalls the origins of the sketch below.
For Conan aficionados, it’s a great way to waste a minute of your time.
* * * * *
Brian McCann, writer on Late Night with Conan O’Brien: Sometime in early 2004, I was sitting on the couch on the Late Night set during our regular afternoon rehearsal when I saw Stack walking into the studio. I thought to myself, “He would make a great Frankenstein.”
Brian Stack, writer on Late Night with Conan O’Brien: I’m 6-foot-4, and I move in a lumbering sort of way, so I guess that’s why.
McCann: It was one of those ideas that clicked all at once. I thought it’d be funny if Frankenstein was in the studio, and he was eagerly trying to show us something, but then it ended up being something really boring, like a pipe.
Stack: I had played Frankenstein once before on the show, where it was Hanukkah and Frankenstein was afraid of the flame on the candle. That was more of the Boris Karloff Frankenstein; for “Frankenstein Wastes a Minute of Our Time,” he evolved into kind of a little kid showing off an art project to his parents.
McCann: I pitched the idea to Stack, and he was into it. From there, the idea was pitched to the head writer. Conan would have seen it first in rehearsal. The first one of these was where Frankenstein showed off a pipe in the hallway. I remember Conan being tickled by it. It was always good to make Conan howl with laughter.
Stack: Our favorite reactions to things like this was when Conan would say, “That’s so stupid.” Conan would usually only say that if it was stupid in a wonderful way, so that was always among the best things to hear from him.
McCann: It was one of those ideas that I knew was a home run, so I figured it’d be a recurring bit. It was a perfect bit to fill up as much time as you needed, anywhere from one to three minutes. Right away, I already had like five things for him to show because I just love 30 Rock. There are tons of weird things that are fun to discover there, like the Muppet pipes. There are also rooms filled with just pipes and wires as well as all of these industrial drinking fountains. To me, the behind-the-scenes of 30 Rock was as much the star of those pieces as Frankenstein himself.
Stack: The one I remember clearly was when I went into the audience and threw an audience member out of his chair to show a piece of gum on the bottom of it. In that one, Conan improvised, telling me to sit next to the guy. Then I chewed the gum from the bottom of the seat and offered it to the guy next to me, who took it and started chewing it, too.
McCann: We did about a dozen of those Frankenstein bits. Certain bits we did would be used more frequently because they required less lead time, but “Frankenstein Wastes a Minute of Our Time” wasn’t a “3 o’clock emergency” bit. It required makeup and a camera with the proper amount of wire, because there wasn’t wi-fi back in those days.
Stack: The makeup for Frankenstein was done by Louie Zakarian, who does the makeup effects for SNL. The first time he did it, it probably took an hour, but after that, it was done in about half the time. The costume was a basic, Herman Munster kind of costume with platform shoes that made me like 6-foot-10.
Even outside of the sketches, I had some funny moments as Frankenstein. Once, I was getting out of the makeup chair and Walter Cronkite was being led into the makeup room. I completely forgot what I looked like — I was in full shoulder pads, with the bolts in my neck and all the makeup. I saw Cronkite, and I just reacted with reverence, telling him, “It’s an honor to have you here, sir.” But he was totally startled by me.
Neil Young may have been on that same show. I was coming out after doing Frankenstein, and Neil Young was just about to do his interview. I walked right into him as Frankenstein and said, “I just wanted to say thank you for your music. I’ve been a big fan for so long.”
“Thanks,” he responded. “That Frankenstein bit was funny, man.” That’s when I remembered what I looked like.
McCann: We always tried to escalate stuff, so we expanded it to include Tom Hanks in one of them. Frankenstein runs out into the hallway and Tom Hanks is there, but he just wants to show off a light switch behind Hanks.
Stack: Tom Hanks was really into it. He’s just a dream guest — he’s funny, authentic and really into comedy. He contributed, too. Originally, I was just supposed to push him out of the way, but he suggested, “What if I get just as excited about the light switch?” So he got excited and started jumping up and down with Frankenstein.
McCann: I think that was the last one we did, which was a good one for us to end on. Honestly, the reason we didn’t do more was because we ran out of things within camera distance for Frankenstein to show. It was a solid bit though, and it always was fun. Plus, the punchline was safely in the title. And so, the audience couldn’t be too pissed when it turned out that Frankenstein really did just waste a minute of their time.