Funny NBC Trick

updated 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN CONAN O'BRIEN LEARNED ON APRIL 26 THAT HE HAD BEEN PICKED to take over from David Letterman as host of NBC's Late Night in August, did he scream? Did he whoop? Did he wave his arms and cry, "Champagne! Champagne!" Apparently not. A writer and producer for The Simpsons since 1991, he was at work on an episode tilled "Bart's Inner Child" when he got a call from NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer. According to a friend, Saturday Night Live writer Robert Smigel, O'Brien, 30, returned from the call and then excused himself, saying, "I'll come back with the Homer joke. I have to go replace Letterman."

That same night, Letterman, who is leaving this summer for CBS and a reported $15 million deal, kidded his successor with a Top 10 list of hints for hosting, among them, "Don't panic if you find a strange woman in your house, and when all else fails just say, 'Buttafuoco.' " The fact is, O'Brien could use any advice. His main credentials, other than The Simpsons, are an Emmy-winning stint as a writer for Saturday Night Live (1988-91) and a smattering of standup and improv experience. Yet this gangly 6'4" redhead—whom SNL's writer-performer Al Franken describes as "a little anxious, a little nervous and a little humble"—is now slated to head a show that currently earns the network $70 million a year.

Actually, O'Brien was originally offered a job as producer with the post-Letterman Late Night. Then his former SNL boss, Lorne Michaels—who's overseeing the revamped version—suggested that he try out for the Dave spot instead (it was turned down by big guns including Dana Carvey and Garry Shandling). O'Brien did a bang-up job in an April 13 in-house test episode.

O'Brien, says Simpsons writing colleague Mike Reiss, is "like a friendly Letterman"—sweeter, less prickly, but just as hip. "His humor is not related to putdown or sarcasm or meanness," says his mother, Ruth, a partner in the prestigious Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray. (His father, Thomas, is a physician and a professor at Harvard Medical School.) Growing up the third of six children in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Conan was sometimes shy, but by last year he had found the inner steel to go back and give the commencement address at Brookline High. "If I hadn't survived so many obstacles right here in this building," declaimed O'Brien, "I would never have found my one good talent—writing jokes for a 10-year-old who doesn't even exist." At Harvard he graduated magna cum laude in history-and-literature and was a two-time president of the Lampoon, Harvard's undergraduate humor magazine. Even then, says Jessica Marshall, a friend and former Lampoon president, "he always used to dream about a Conan O'Brien show."

And now—Late Night with Conan O'Brien. What can we expect of a man who drives a Ford Taurus, loves rockabilly, dates an actress and usually wears his favorite pair of secondhand shoes? Hard to predict, really, although O'Brien's associates in Ha-Ha Land insist he is hilarious. "Conan would do something very funny at the office and we'd all go home and tell our wives," says Reiss. "They'd say, 'That's not funny.' We'd say, 'Well, it was funny when Conan did it."

MARCIA BOUNDY in Boston, MICHAEL SMALL in San Francisco, SUE CARSWELL in New York City and LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles

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