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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Conan O'Brien and John Updike '80s Buddy Comedy That Almost Was

Posted By on Wed, May 25, 2011 at 11:26 AM


Here's a mystery: What urgent message did august important person John Updike impart to a very young Conan O'Brien way back in 1984?

Before getting to O'Brien's surprise cameo in an early '90s literary essay, let's do some background. Long before he had his own show, or his other own show, or came up with that Saturday Night Live sketch that traumatized America with its reckless use of the word "penis," or wrote the single greatest episode of The Simpsons, Conan O'Brien was already sort of a big deal -- and already adept at chatting up famous folks.

Recently, SF Weekly discovered evidence of O'Brien's precocity in pretty much the least likely place you would expect: on page 160 of U and I, novelist Nicholson Baker's unorthodox 1991 consideration of the work of John Updike. Updike, you certainly know, wrote the great Rabbit books, once memorialized in verse "The Beautiful Bowel Movement," and actually penned the line "She had dear little nipples like rabbit noses."

And Baker, as you might recall, wrote Vox, the phone-sex novel Monica Lewinsky purportedly gave Bill Clinton, as well as marvelous miniaturist's novels like Room Temperature and The Mezzanine, numerous essays (and one spectacular book) about the need to preserve old newspapers (he also directs a nonprofit dedicated to this), and that one novel in which academics fantasize about killing George W. Bush.


In U and I, Baker dishes with pluck and anxiety about his long fascination with Updike. It's a curious and fascinating book, well worth your time if either author interests you.

But its strangest aspect by far must be Baker's description of a rare encounter with Updike. In 1984, at a party in the basement of the Harvard Lampoon castle, Baker spotted his hero and waited for a chance to approach him.

Only one problem. The Updike-blocking skills of a young Conan O'Brien.

Baker writes:

"I spied on [Updike] as he stood in a rearward room, giving serious advice to an exceedingly tall person who was the editor or president of the Lampoon that year."

The president of the Lampoon in '84: Conan O'Brien. (That same year at Harvard, O'Brien engineered the public theft of Burt Ward's Robin costume -- by the Penguin!)

O'Brien must have cut a memorable figure. The book came out in '91, two years before the debut of O'Brien's first talk show, so Baker -- by no means a Harvard man -- had no reason to have seen that tall "editor or president" again. Yet there he looms.

One page later, O'Brien's figure gets another mention, this time in a burst of jealousy:

"Yes, the editor/president with whom he had been in close conference was very tall and skinny; but I was tall and skinny, too -- perhaps taller, skinnier!"

Incidentally, many years later O'Brien recommended the works of John Updike to Entertainment Weekly readers. He wrote,

"The late John Updike was a better writer than anyone you are reading right now. If you have not read this book [2009's My Father's Tears], read this book, then everything else by John Updike. If I have not made myself clear, read lots of things by John Updike."

So, that leaves us with one important question: What serious advice did John Updike offer Conan O'Brien in 1984?

Hey, you could do worse than following Alan Scherstuhl at @studiesincrap or SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog at @ExhibitionistSF on the Twitter thing.

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Alan Scherstuhl


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