GREAT NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN
By Victor Varnado
About three years ago I had an audition to be on Late Night with Conan O’Brien at a night club in New York. A talent booker for the show requested to see sets from comedians and then put them up in front of whatever crowd was available at the local comedy club. How did I do? I was very lucky that throwing bottles at a performer had gone out of style. The Conan O’Brien show didn’t call me, big surprise. Under normal circumstances, I would just assume that they would forget about the whole thing and I could just keep submitting to them but I’m under special circumstances you see; I’m a black albino comedian and generally people don’t forget that. (I know that you probably want me to explain more about the black albino thing right now, but this is my story so bear with me.)
The only other time that I ever submitted to Late Night with Conan O’Brien was a few months ago and thank goodness things went better this time. I’m not going to try and pretend that I was cool headed or reserved in any way when I got the call from my manager that the Conan show had decided to offer me a spot. There are many different types of comedians. There are comedians that are cool, smart and make fun of everything else in the world; there are comics that are mean bastards and then there are comics like me; geeky and unsure of themselves who have used humor so much as a defense mechanism that they have finally become comedians. All of these comedians would get excited at the chance to be on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. That’s how I explain me crapping my pants.
The first real problem arose when the talent booker for Conan O’Brien sent me a list of material that they wanted me to do on the show. The list consisted entirely of jokes that I had performed on another show on cable. The booker assured me that cable and broadcast television were very different things. Tons of people who had never seen me before would see the show and doing “tried and true” material would help warm me up to the Conan O’Brien audience.
I asked the booker if I could make a deal with him; I would pitch some new material to him at the run through after I was done doing the older material. He agreed and for a moment I was happy. The run through was at Caroline’s comedy club in Time’s Square. I went through the old material and everything was going wonderfully. By the time I went into my newer material, the audience was one hundred percent with me. I couldn’t have hoped for better. I got to the biggest of the new jokes that I was pitching; it was about superheroes.
There was this show called the Superfrieds that they made in the 70’s and 80’s. They tried to make the show ethnically diverse by adding in all these heroes of different races. One of the heroes was Black Lightning. Black Lightning was a black superhero with “black” at the front of his name, which is already wrong. I feel sorry for him because I know he didn’t show up wanting to be Black Lightning I’m Sure he showed up and said, “Hey, what’s happening Superman. You got ‘super’ powers, they call you Superman; that guy looks like a bat and they call him Batman. Check this out, I shoot lightning out of my hands, I should be Lightning Man! What do you think?”
Superman was like, “No. No… no no. How about BLACK Lightning?”
“What?! You can’t limit my choices like that!”
“Well you’ve got a choice. You can be black lightning or Niggatron!”
“Superman! I’m not going to stand for this! WE aren’t going to stand for this. Say something Apache chief. Say something! At least put a shirt on…”
“Calm down, calm down… Now go sit at the ethnic table…next to captain Japanese. I don’t know what he does but I know that he’s stealing jobs away from American superheroes.”
Oh, a detail that I may have left out was that the run-through night happened to fall on the same night as Caroline’s all-Asian comedy show. All-Asian comics, in front of an all-Asian audience, and me; a black albino making an ironic joke about the Japanese stealing jobs from Americans. I know that sounds bad out of context but trust me, a guy that you don’t know, it was not a racist joke. Normally the joke goes over great in front of a mixed audience, but when you are the only non-Asian person on an all-Asian comedy night… sigh. I bet you’re getting the picture by now. Amazingly, they ended up letting me do the older material and most of the new bits as well.
The taping began while I was eating cookies in the green room. Before I went on, one person after another walked up to me and cautiously asked me if I was feeling okay. Was I excited? Am I nervous? My better judgment was the only thing that stopped me from slapping faces at full force.
Jennifer Aniston was on the show.. She’s tiny.
I watched the second guest, Harold Perrineau, on the backstage television. He was fresh off of shooting a bunch of people on ABC’s Lost and seemed nice enough when I met him for a few moments by the green room. He was a “real” guest so I didn’t see him until just before he went on. Late Night separates the comedians from the actual talent, unless.. that’s just how they did it with me.
Harold was nervous and sweating to an insane degree while he was being interviewed by Conan. He told me earlier that he was a huge fan. Watching Harold freak out made me feel less intimidated.
I felt confident when it was my turn to walk out and perform. The stage manager lead me to an area behind the curtain and told me that when Conan announced my name, I would walk out to a star on the ground and just begin. The stage manager then walked away. That’s it? Don’t these guys know that I have bad vision and I’m not wearing my glasses? Where’s the star again? At a club, you get to watch other comics with the crowd and then gauge how they are before you go on. I just walk out? Suddenly I was thirsty. The audience had started applauding because Conan had just called my name… I think. A hand pushed me gently toward the curtain.
When I get out and see the audience and cameras, my hands were immediately numb. That’s weird. I’ve heard of sweating and shortness of breath, but whose hands go numb? Suddenly, I begin to think that there are a whole lot of people in America who have never seen a black albino before. What if they freak out? Why would they freak out? The first couple of jokes that I told came out about an octave higher than my voice really is. The audience laughs hard and I relax. The older jokes and the newer jokes got bigger and bigger responses and I managed to finish to raucous applause.
The stage manager had told Conan that my last line of dialogue was “’Cause I’m black. Surprise!” When I said it, Conan came over to shake my hand and was very nice.
CONAN: Great, great job. You were really funny.
ME: Thanks a lot for having me. I was really nervous.
CONAN: Are you a writer?
CONAN: I think it really shows in your act. What show do you write for?
ME: None. I mostly write for movies.
CONAN: I think it was great.
ME: I was nervous that my act wouldn’t go over on you show… I mean you don’t exactly have a “black” audience.
CONAN: What are you talking about? Look at that saxophone player over there.
Conan was pointing to his band. We both laughed, maybe I laughed too much. I shook his hand for longer than I should have and I lingered when he was saying goodbye to the audience. He asked me back on the show and towered above me.
If I had it all to do again, the only thing that I would change is that my hands wouldn’t have been numb and I wouldn’t have bombed in front of the talent booker three years ago.