Strumming in the Park With...Conan O'Brien

updated 08/22/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Conan O'Brien hasn't been under this much heat since the cancellation rumors about Late Night began swirling last September, a mere two months after he took over for David Letterman. On this 92-degree day, O'Brien is desperate for a shady spot in New York City's Washington Square Park to indulge in his favorite pastime: playing his six-string Gibson acoustic guitar for a live audience. After he sets up underneath a leafy oak and breaks into a rendition of the Beatles' "I'll Cry Instead," a gaggle of startled drug dealers, Rollerbladers and tourists gathers around his open guitar case. "I shouldn't be out here," says O'Brien, 31, wiping the sweat from his freckled brow. "I'm genetically engineered to live in a peat bog in the Irish countryside. I have the skin of a premature baby."

In the adult world of late-night television, however, O'Brien's baby-smooth skin has already thickened. His version of Late Night hasn't quite attracted the acclaim that Letterman's did. But after months of merciless reviews and weak ratings, O'Brien's show has suddenly shown new life. Impressed by the show's growing cult following among college students and a substantial rise in the Nielsens, NBC says it even looks forward to another season with its fledgling star. Still, as O'Brien—who has been known to play in Greenwich Village clubs—segues into "Peggy Sue," some members of the crowd are fearing the worst. "Hey, Conan, did you lose your show? Is that why you're doing this?" asks a tattooed dude. "No, but I need the money," jokes O'Brien. "They don't pay me well. Arsenio got all the cash."

O'Brien is catching up: So far, $8 and change has been tossed into his guitar case. Someone shouts a request. "Do you know 'It's Hard to Be Humble' by Mac Davis?" asks a middle-aged man in Bermuda shorts. "You want me to do a Mac Davis tune?" O'Brien replies, laughing. "I'm afraid not. And I'll kill anyone who wants to hear 'Feelings.' "

Next he asks a couple of buskers playing nearby—Eric Schwartz and Jim Ware—to join him for a quick set, starting with "Lyin' Eyes." The crowd, which has grown to more than 50 passersby, applauds loudly. But Schwartz isn't as enthusiastic about O'Brien's musical gifts. "He shouldn't quit his night job," he says afterward.

Actually, his night job is precisely where O'Brien does most of his playing, to relieve the pressure of hosting a daily show. "I strap on my Gibson and wander up and down the hallways," says O'Brien, a former drummer who began playing the guitar in 1985, after moving into an L.A. apartment building that prohibited drumming. "I often play during staff meetings in case I have to shoot down a writer's idea. Bad news always goes down a little easier with peppy music in the background." O'Brien, who by now owns five guitars, also takes advantage of his studio band, the Max Weinberg Seven. "During their rehearsals, I'll go over and play with them. It's like very expensive karaoke."

To avoid certain heatstroke, O'Brien quits after 35 minutes and heads for Bleeker Bob's, a vintage-record store. En route, he meets Sweet Pea, a man who spends his days playing chess for money. "Hey, man," shouts Sweet Pea, "didn't you play Jesus in a movie once?"

"I look a lot like Jesus, don't I?" cracks the 6'4", carrot-topped O'Brien. "He too had freckles and was Irish. But that's all we know about him."

Before he can make a clean getaway, O'Brien is accosted by an astrologer, who tells him that he'll live to be 95 and have great sex for the rest of his life, as well as two men in tank tops selling cologne. One of them assures him, straight-faced, that "Leno and Letterman buy off us whenever they're in town." Conan, who appreciates a good line, smiles and forks over $20 for a bottle.

These days, O'Brien can afford more than just bootleg cologne. On his way up-town in a rented, chauffeur-driven sedan, he recalls his early days. One of six children in an affluent Irish Catholic family (his father, Thomas, is a physician and his mother, Ruth, a lawyer), O'Brien grew up in Brookline, Mass., and after high school attended Harvard, where he was president of the Lampoon. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1985 to become a comedy writer, he landed a job as a gofer on Comic Relief. "My job was to get coffee and Kleenex for the stars," he remembers. "I was assigned to Estelle Getty of The Golden Girls, and I had to get her things like hair nets, which are not easy to find, but I did it."

O'Brien has been equally industrious hosting Late Night, which he calls the hardest job of his life. (Other gigs include writing for Saturday Night Live for three years and as a writer-producer on The Simpsons.) He's been so busy he hasn't even had time to buy air conditioners for his two-bedroom Upper West Side apartment overlooking Central Park. His living room contains an electric guitar autographed by Les Paul, Civil War memorabilia and framed letters from President Clinton and Letterman. O'Brien, who lives alone (he declines to discuss his girlfriend), describes his chaotic first year after being plucked from relative obscurity by SNL executive producer Lome Michaels to succeed Letter-man. "I literally became famous overnight," he says. "Disneyland should design a ride that shows how silly the whole thing is. For $5 you get in a seat and you're whisked through press conferences and every TV talk show, and then it deposits you in Brooklyn somewhere and you have to walk home."

As fall approaches, O'Brien is hoping to walk into the hearts of still-skeptical viewers. "Look," he says, "it's impossible to top Letterman. If I found out someone was replacing him, I wouldn't like the guy either." He's just as sanguine about Tom Snyder, whose CBS talk show will premiere opposite Late Night in December. "I'm happy to have Tom in the late-night lineup," says Conan. "But we're working two sides of the street."

Now that his ratings are improving, O'Brien, who earns more than $1 million a year, is starting to relax. "This is the least my life has ever sucked," he says. How long it will last, however, is another matter. "I'm confident I'll be around a while. Did Carson know he'd do it for 30 years? Did Chevy know he wouldn't last six weeks?"

Lying on his bed, beside a night table covered with books on the Kennedys, O'Brien recalls Pat Sajak, one of the first casualties of the '90s talk show wars. "I remember that Pat began wearing sweaters on-air every night toward the end," he says. "I think that's when you're in trouble, when you start wearing sweaters. That's when it's time to go back to playing in the park for money."

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