The Incredibly Offensive Ballad of Artie Kendall, the Ghost Crooner Who Haunted 30 Rock on ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’
Struck by the sound, Conan asked, “What was that?” Suddenly, a specter appeared to the left of his desk. He introduced himself as Artie Kendall, the ghost of a crooner who used to sing in the studio back in the late 1930s. At first, the spirit seemed charming and humble, dismissing his diddies as “silly little songs.” But when Conan insisted that Kendall share his music with the studio audience, a dark side of the apparition was revealed in a song he’d dedicated to the two million homeless people during the Great Depression:
Oh, I’ve heard that lots of hobos live in caves
And they’re spreadin’ ‘cross this land of ours in waves
They’re ridin’ on the rails, we should throw ‘em all in jails
Or round ‘em up and make ‘em all our slaves
Conan was offended by the number, but allowed Kendall to continue with “a sweet little song” he used to “sing for all the ladies”:
Oh, women shouldn’t be allowed to talk
We should seal their lips with strong adhesive caulk
And if they try to write things down, we should drag ‘em outta town
And anesthetize their legs so they can’t walk
Now, Conan was outraged, but Kendall noted O’Brien’s “hot Irish temper” and proceeded with a third song:
Oh, Irish people’s brains are made of corn
And they all get drunk before they’re even born
We should lock ‘em up in a zoo or they’ll drink up all our booze
I also heard they’re into kiddie porn
Horrified, Conan cut to commercial. When he returned, the ghost was gone, but Kendall would reappear several more times on the NBC talk show over the next three years.
Artie Kendall was the product of longtime Conan writer Brian Stack, who worked with O’Brien across three different shows from 1997 to 2015 before moving back to New York to write for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Although Stack was last possessed by Kendall in the final days of Late Night with Conan O’Brien back in 2008, the offensive old troubadour still haunts the annals of his fond memories of working with Conan.
The Ghost of 30 Rock Is Born
Artie Kendall was a product of working in Rockefeller Center. I worked there for 12 years, and one day it occurred to me that Rockefeller Center had been around since 1930, which meant that old radio singers had worked there. So I was imagining what it was like for those old crooners singing into their mics in the old NBC radio studios.
It was also fascinating to me that Bing Crosby supposedly had this dark side to him — that this guy who had this happy-go-lucky voice would go home and be a complete a-hole was interesting to me. Those elements came together, and the idea for this happy-go-lucky ghost crooner that was a terrible person was born.
Previously, my fellow writer, Michael Gordon, had done a bit where his character was fading in and out of frame. They did a lockdown shot with one camera, and with another camera you bring the fade bar down so you only half fade in. It occurred to me that they could do the same effect for Artie Kendall, and I could just stand next to the desk and look like I’m appearing as a ghost while we’re there shooting it live. It was surprisingly simple.
I had the band pre-record a track for me to sing along to and it worked perfectly. Funny enough, had I known I’d do this character more than one time, I probably would have written more than one melody, but I’ve had some people tell me that they liked that about it — they liked the absurdity that it was always the same tune.
Not Just a Ghost — A Monster, Too
The first time we did it, Conan really enjoyed it. He always enjoys silly, dark stuff like that. We didn’t know how it’d go over with the audience though. But it got a great response, so we brought Artie Kendall back several more times and he let us know about more of his horrible views — like being fond of child labor, him being a Nazi sympathizer and him accusing President Roosevelt of being a communist.
The racism and sexism of that time was no secret, and, frankly, I think him being from another time made it more palatable to people. But I wanted it to be clear his views were unacceptable even in their own time — that he was a monster back then, too. In one bit, I mentioned that he was thrown down a mine shaft, and in another, I said he was murdered by the League of Women Voters. That they forced him to dig his own grave and beheaded him with a shovel.
After the first few, I began ad-libbing little parts to the song at the end. There was one about Nazi Germany, and at the end of it, I sang “Hitlery-hoo!” Those helped to keep it spontaneous, and Conan, being an improviser himself, loved stuff that he wasn’t expecting.
Artie Kendall’s Final Haunting
We did Artie Kendall about 10 times total. He never carried over to The Tonight Show or the TBS show, though he was in the tribute video they put together for my final show on TBS.
Now I work for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and when I walk from the train to the Ed Sullivan Theater, I walk past Rockefeller Center pretty much every day. I have the fondest memories of getting to work in that place for 12 years; it’s such a beautiful building with so much history. Artie Kendall is a tribute to that.
Well, maybe tribute is the wrong word, given what a horrible monster Artie was. Maybe he’s more of a dark love letter to those old radio days.