An Oral History of Hannigan, the Shady, Fast-Talking Traveling Salesman from ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’
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All of these products and many more were offered up by Hannigan, the traveling salesman who frequented Late Night with Conan O’Brien in the early aughts. Played by longtime Conan writer Brian Stack — and co-created by Stack and fellow writers Andrew Weinberg and Michael Koman — Hannigan was the shadiest of Conan’s parade of weirdos. Regardless, I managed to get the straight dope from Stack, Weinberg and Koman on the salesman who “swears on the lives of his fictional children that he’s not selling anything.”
Andrew Weinberg, writer on Late Night with Conan O’Brien: I’ve always been fascinated by naked salesmanship — maybe because it’s so foreign to me, and I’m so bad at it. But people who can “go into that mode” are very funny to me. That’s part of what inspired Hannigan. That, and this random memory I had from when I was in college. I was at a bar playing pool, and on the pool table, there was this red plastic quarter holder where people would place their quarters to signal that they were playing next. I became fascinated by this little plastic thing. Are there different models? Is there a budget level and a “Queen Anne” luxury line?
All that came back to me in 2003 when I was at Late Night and had the idea for Brian Stack to play a traveling joke salesman — this guy who’d ring the doorbell, ask for “the man of the house” and offer up some “Grade-A rib-ticklers from the good people at Gag Co.”
I took the idea to Michael Koman, who loved writing for Stack and was good at that old-timey voice. We eventually both brought it to Stack, and we began writing about how this guy had different lines of jokes to offer Conan, like budget, affordable-level jokes and more expensive jokes from the “Queen Anne Line” that were supposedly funnier.
Brian Stack, writer on Late Night with Conan O’Brien: The jokes Hannigan sold were always terrible. Like, “Hey, that Ben and J.Lo sure are popular. If their stars got any brighter, they’d put the sun right out of business!”
Weinberg: If I remember correctly, during the first one, Hannigan only pitched stuff that Conan could use for the show, like unfunny jokes and sketches and bad guests. But in future iterations, he also sold Conan other things like tonics and the Boget’s Thesaurus.
Stack: In the sketch, Conan was like, “Boget’s Thesaurus? I’ve only heard of Roget’s Thesaurus.” Then Hannigan said, “Roget’s is fine if you prefer accuracy over sheer bulk, but if you’re looking for half the words at twice the weight… What’s a synonym for unbeatable?” Then I opened up Boget’s and said, “Shiny!”
Michael Koman, writer on Late Night with Conan O’Brien: Much like another Stack character, The Interrupter, Hannigan was a tremendously desperate man with nothing of value to offer anyone. His only goal was to deceive, yet he’d sweat it out and never give up. Years after I left Conan, I had a traveling salesman character on Eagleheart and that’s when I realized where some of Hannigan came from: There’s something so funny to me about Willy Loman and this era of bedraggled, exhausted salesmen. Also, Hannigan was informed by one of the greatest documentaries ever made, called Salesman, which was from 1969 and was about door-to-door salesmen. Every detail of Hannigan was in there.
Stack: I don’t think I did it consciously, but after doing Hannigan a few times, I realized I was doing something of a tribute to William Powell from movies like The Thin Man and My Man Godfrey. That fast-paced, screwball comedy way of talking is soaked into my DNA.
Koman: Hannigan also had a horrible life. We said “his brain was raging with syphilis” and that he “lost his penis in a hastily-closed car trunk.” He also made mention of his horrible father who paid a man to run Hannigan over with a golf cart and was “killed in his sleep by a shifty Creole prostitute.” There are certain jokes, especially from Hannigan, that just stay with me years later. Like, he’d offer Conan knock-off guests whose names sounded like real celebrities.
Stack: I remember one joke where Conan asks if Hannigan can get any musical guests, and Hannigan says, “What about The Stones?” Conan says, “The Rolling Stones?” Hannigan says “No, Morty and Isaac Stone, two grizzled old railway workers; Morty claims to play the saw, and Isaac screams every time he sees a flat surface.”
Weinberg: Hannigan is definitely a character who’s stuck with me too. Koman and I just made a Hannigan joke two days ago via text. I was listening to SiriusXM and the DJ mentioned this band named “Palehound” fronted by El Kempner. I texted Koman about El Kempner and said, “El Kempner is the redhead actress Hannigan would pitch to Conan.”
Conan would ask, “Can you get me Ellie Kemper?” And Hannigan would respond, “No, but I can do you one better — El Kempner, the singer for Palehound!”