Conan O'Brien's name didn't ring any bells Monday night when he was picked to replace David Letterman as host of its "Late Night" show. But phones were buzzing on both coasts yesterday morning as information and opinions were sought on this 30-year-old unknown comedy writer taking over one of the most coveted spots on late-night television.
"He's the voice of the next generation," said NBC's West Coast president, Don Ohlmeyer. "The same way Letterman was when he started.
"Letterman was the voice of the baby-boomers. O'Brien is the voice of the MTV generation."
The choice was made by Lorne Michaels, executive producer of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and of the new "Late Night" show, which will debut in late August.
Mr. O'Brien was unavailable for comment.
Writer and supervising producer with "The Simpsons" for the past year and a half, the tall, lanky redhead has had a full career writing comedy for television since he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1985.
"I knew his talents couldn't be contained on 'The Simpsons' forever, and am pleased he is getting a shot at the big time," said Matt Groening, creator of the animated series on Fox. "I know he'll go far. Conan always kept the rest of 'The Simpsons' writing staff entertained. And if he can make a bunch of bitter, self-hating comedy writers laugh, I'm sure he'll have no trouble making the rest of America laugh."
Mr. O'Brien has had stints writing for "Saturday Night Live," HBO's "Not Necessarily the News," Fox's short-lived "Wilton North Report," an original stage review in Chicago and a never-aired sitcom pilot starring Adam West.
He was the only person ever voted in twice as president of the Harvard Lampoon parody magazine. Many Lampoon alumni are comedy writers in Hollywood.
"He was the dominant figure at the Lampoon," said "Late Night" writer Steve Young, who worked with Mr. O'Brien at the Lampoon in 1984 and 1985. "He was very visible and blazingly funny. He was always making up little skits and sketches around the building. They were all very fluid."
At the Lampoon offices in Cambridge, "he's a hero," said writer-editor Louis Morton.
Mr. O'Brien was not above practical jokes. According to Mr. Morton, Mr. O'Brien and several other students commandeered a Cambridge city public works truck and dug up a local street with jackhammers. After calling the police to report that a bunch of kids dressed as public works employees were chewing up the street, they phoned the public works department to report a bunch of kids dressed as police doing the same. "Then they sat back and watched them go after each other," Mr. Morton said.
Mr. O'Brien wrote and occasionally acted for "Saturday Night Live" for four years, performing in approximately 50 sketches, said his father, Dr. Thomas O'Brien, a physician in Boston. Conan O'Brien won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Variety Series.
But his first job out of college was as a writer for HBO's news parody show, "Not Necessarily the News."
"He had this real cute, all-American Irish quality," said the former executive producer of "News," Pat Tourk Lee. "He had a very bizarre, offbeat sense of humor. Very likable and accessible."
Born and raised in Brookline, Mass., as the third of six children, Mr. O'Brien wasn't exactly the class clown, according to his father, but "he could generate humor out of all kinds of situations and was doing it constantly."