Q&A: Conan O’Brien

In this wide-ranging conversation — a companion to John Ortved's August feature for Vanity Fair, "Simpson Family Values" — O'Brien talks with Ortved about how he got the Simpsons job, what it was like to work on the show, and why Mr. Burns was his favorite character to write for.

How did you come to work at The Simpsons?

I worked at Saturday Night Live for the '88-'89 season, and then '90- '91. In the fall of '91, when the writers were supposed to come back to S.N.L., I just realized I was burned out. I told Lorne [Michaels] I couldn't come back to work and just needed to do something else. I had no plan whatsoever. I was in this big transition phase in my life where I decided, "I'll just walk around New York City, and an idea will come to me."

This is one of those stories that aspiring TV writers everywhere must hate, but my phone rang, and it was Mike Reiss and Al Jean, and they said, "We heard you just left Saturday Night Live. Would you be interested in working at The Simpsons?" And I said, "Yes! I would be." The Simpsons was sort of notorious at the time. Everyone wanted to be on that show, but they never hired. I think they were still going off the original crew.

I'd never written in that form before. I'd only written sketches, and I'd done a pilot with Robert Smigel, Lookwell. I told them, "Look, I've never written a Simpsons episode, I've never really written a sitcom script." But I had a good reputation at that point, so on the strength of that they just said, "Well, come on."

It was such a quick thing. When I quit Saturday Night Live, I went out and bought a '92 Ford Taurus-the S.H.O., by the way; I don't want you to get the wrong idea, it's a stick-shift model, the ladies go crazy for it. I had just bought it when the call came, and I thought, "Well, that's all right, I'll have a really cool time, I'll tell them I can't be there for five weeks and I'll do a Jack Kerouac-in-a-Ford-Taurus cross-country trip, and I'll grow a beard and wear an eye patch." I had all these romantic ideas, but then they said, "No. We need you here in two days."

When I showed up, Jeff Martin was away doing something, so they gave me his office temporarily. I was very nervous. I knew a bunch of the writers, but just by reputation-I hadn't worked with many of them. I was self-conscious, I was worried: "Can I do it? Am I going to embarrass myself in front of these people?" Because I'd never worked with Mike Reiss and Al Jean, or George Meyer, [John] Vitti, [John] Swartzwelder. It's an intimidating collection of people if you're a comedy writer.

They showed me into this office and told me to start writing down some ideas. They left me alone in that office, and I remember leaving after five minutes to go get a cup of coffee. And I heard a crash, and I walked back to the office, and there was a hole in the window and a dead bird on the floor-literally in my first 10 minutes at The Simpsons, a bird had flown through the glass of my window, hit the far wall, broken its neck, and fallen dead on the floor. And I remember George Meyer came in and looked at it, and he was like, "Man, this is some kind of weird omen."

It all ended up working out really well, but nowhere in literature has a dead bird ever been a good omen.

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