John Candy Didn’t Disappoint College Student Conan O’Brien

‘He was everything I wanted him to be’
John Candy Didn’t Disappoint College Student Conan O’Brien

Never meet your heroes? That’s terribly stupid advice, says Conan O’Brien, who shared a picture this weekend from the day in 1984 when he met his comedy idol. “John Candy was EVERYTHING I hoped,” posted O’Brien. 

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How did college Conan end up spending a day with Candy? For the whole story, let’s go to an interview O’Brien did last year with Howard Stern. It all began during a childhood visit to O’Brien’s grandfather’s house in Rhode Island. “One night, my brothers came and woke me up and said there's this thing on TV that's so amazing. It was like finding a rare jewel,” he told Stern. “They showed me SCTV.”

One sketch in particular stuck with Boy Conan — a promotional spot with John Candy playing alter-ego Johnny LaRue playing Yellowbelly, the biggest coward in the West. A mother and daughter pass the quivering Calvary member and the girl asks, “Mama, is that Yellowbelly?” When Yellowbelly hears his name, he panics and shoots the girl in the back. When Mama calls for help, Yellowbelly guns her down too. “I didn't think you could do that,” Conan says. “It is so wrong and I laughed so hard.” 

As much as the kid liked Saturday Night LiveSCTV was even better. “I felt like they were making this for me,” he said. 

A few years later, O’Brien found himself at Harvard and was instrumental in arranging a visit for Candy. O’Brien picked up his hero and once they were in the car, the student had to talk about the bit. “I'm sorry, Mr. Candy, but …. Yellowbelly.” His hero responded with “a big John Candy laugh,” agreeing that the sketch was crazy.

O’Brien had been given a list of instructions for handling Candy that day, including particulars about the comic’s Pritikin diet. A fat lot of good that did O’Brien. Candy, who was “over-the-top funny the whole time,” asked Conan to take a walk, insisting that O’Brien call him ‘John.’ First stop on the walk? A bakery. “Let’s go, kid!”

“We go into the pastry shop and he goes, ‘I’ll have one of those, one of those, one of those, one of those’ — and they start stacking all these different eclairs into a box,” remembers O’Brien. Candy could see young Conan was worried that they were breaking the rules. “He nudges me and goes, ‘Don't worry, kid — they're Pritikin eclairs!’” 

Eventually, a nervous Conan screwed up the nerve to approach Candy about his own comedy dreams. The two were at a party in the Harvard Lampoon building, standing by a window and looking out at the street. “I just said, ‘You know, Mr. Candy, I'm thinking I might try comedy.”

“And his head whipped around. He looked me right in the eye and he said, ‘You don't try comedy. You do it or you don't do it.’”

That advice from Candy, channeling his inner comedy Yoda, “hit me very powerfully,” O’Brien says. And he took the counsel to heart. “That was my attitude going into (comedy) in ‘85. I'm not going to take the LSAT. I'm not going to have a backup. This just has to work.”

“What I remember most clearly,” says O’Brien, “is he was everything I wanted him to be. He was John Candy.”

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