The talk-show host is best known for his on-air antics, but Conan O’Brien is becoming a force behind the scenes.
LOS ANGELES – Here’s one way to get your own TV show: Kill on “Conan.”
Conan O’Brien is producing Rebel Wilson’s new ABC sitcom, “Super Fun Night,” as well as an upcoming talk show for comedian Pete Holmes, largely because the two rising stars wowed O’Brien during appearances on his TBS late-night show.
Being a great guest doesn’t mean as much as it did in the days when Johnny Carson had the power to make someone a household name overnight, but it can still pay off. Just ask Oprah Winfrey’s pal Phil McGraw, or Ray Romano, whose hit series “Everybody Loves Raymond” was produced by David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants Inc.
Before meeting O’Brien, Wilson had made her mark in America with a short but memorable appearance in “Bridesmaids,” playing an unwelcome roommate of Kristen Wiig. For her first appearance on “Conan” last year, she showed up in a green track suit and told a string of hilarious stories about getting nasty letters from her Hollywood neighbors and how to nail an American accent.
“Very rarely, someone’s on the show who I haven’t met before, and it’s a revelation,” O’Brien said. “When the show was over, I walked over to executive producer Jeff Ross and just said, ‘I want her back tomorrow and the next day and the next.’ She’s absolutely one of the most likable performers I’ve seen in a long career on television.”
After a couple of meetings, Wilson pitched a show to O’Brien based on how she used to spend Friday evenings in her hometown of Sydney, Australia. She and her sister, who worked in a candy factory, would sit at home and eat chocolate while watching TV. The routine turned into a rut. One Friday night, Wilson decided she needed to be a little more daring.
“I kind of strategically tried to go into the world and force myself into these social situations,” she said. “That’s where all the true stories come from for the show.”
Wilson plays Kimmie Boubier, who works in a law firm where she’s often put down by colleagues for not being one of the “beautiful people.” Her only allies are her roommates — two lifelong friends who are even more socially awkward than she is. When she drags them out of the apartment to check out new clubs and piano bars, their misadventures often lead to Kimmie being disgraced in public, sometimes with very little clothing.
Self-embarrassment is nothing new in comedy, but when it’s done by a plus-size actress, it may come across to some viewers as just plain cruel. Wilson says not to worry.
“The purpose of the show is to really inspire girls who don’t think they’re cool or pretty to get out there and have fun and exciting lives, too,” she said. “In order to do that, you need to present a very realistic version of what it’s like to be a girl who looks like me. So there are some sad stories coming down the pipe, but I think we have to present that so that when we present wins for my character, they’re awesome.”
Holmes is more of an unknown than Wilson — unless you’ve been following him on the Web. He’s logged more than 300 hours on his podcast, “You Made It Weird With Pete Holmes.”
“Pete is a lot younger than me and is a product of the digital age,” said O’Brien, who got hooked on Holmes’ shows and eventually started booking him as a frequent guest. “When I started doing late-night, I was covered in afterbirth. I practically learned to walk on the air. Pete is starting ahead of the game.”
But Holmes admits it’s going to be a learning curve when his half-hour show, which has a seven-week commitment from TBS, starts following “Conan” on weeknights Oct. 28.
“You go from being a lone wolf whose sole responsibility is being funny for 45 minutes to running a staff,” Holmes said.
Ross, who is basically O’Brien’s right-hand man, said that while the two comedians have different comedic sensibilities, they have enough similarities to make for a solid one-two punch.
“Pete’s not going to be overly topical,” Ross said. “It’s going to be more silly humor. In that way, they are very compatible shows.”
One benefit of having O’Brien as a boss is the opportunity to use him as a sounding board. O’Brien downplays his involvement, saying he’s mostly around to make sure his protégés stay true to their voices. But on occasion, the veteran host has provided valuable advice, Holmes said.
“Conan told me it’s the job of the writers and the producers to make the whole show like a playground for me,” he said. “It’s their job to build it, make sure it’s safe and make sure it’s fun, so I can go out and just be silly.”
O’Brien’s tip for Wilson was more succinct.
When filming the first episode, she called O’Brien, worried about how she was going to manage 10-hour working days.
His response: “Start drinking.”
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