Conan O’Brien swings into Boston, talks TV, comedy, and the Kennedys
Unlike a lot of the other folks who are attending this week’s conference of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Conan O’Brien knows his way around Boston. A Brookline native and Harvard grad, O’Brien didn’t need a stinkin’ chauffeur Wednesday to find his way to the behemoth Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, where the cable klatch is being held. (Of course, he used one anyway to get to his 9:30 a.m. sitdown with CNN’s Piers Morgan.) Thursday, the ginger-haired host of the TBS talk show “Conan” will be at the John F. Kennedy Library talking to the Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris about life, work, and his approach to comedy. O’Brien will also be plugging the JFK Library Foundation’s New Frontier Network, which brings together young leaders committed to pursuing JFK’s ideals of civic engagement and public service. (He’s honorary chairman of the initiative.) But as busy as he is with all that, O’Brien still took a few minutes to chat with us on the phone.
Q. Do you stay at home when you’re here or is that weird?
A. I have in the past. This time, Turner [Broadcasting System] got me a room because I thought it would be easier. But my mother takes offense, so I’ll spend most of my time over in Brookline.
Q. That’s nice.
A. And you know what, the room service is better over there.
Q. In Brookline?
Q. (Laughs) That’s a compliment to your mom.
A. My mom runs a four-star house. It’s fantastic.
Q. Let’s talk about the gig at the JFK Library. You’re the honorary chairman of the New Frontier Network. In many cases, honorary means it’s a figurehead thing and the person doesn’t know anything about the group. That’s not true with you, I’m told.
A. Oh, yeah. I majored in American history and literature in college but I also do a lot of private reading about American history and American political history, and especially 20th century political history. Think about it, I’m Irish Catholic, Brookline-born, and attended Harvard. So I’ve come from a world where the Kennedys completely changed our lives. I also had an interesting perspective because my parents are professionals, very well-educated, high-powered people who were having kids during the Kennedy administration. But my grandmother also lived with us and she was in her 90s. She’d grown up with a completely different Irish Catholic experience. Being a part of this effort is just a natural for me.
Q. That sounds right.
A. Some of the bigwigs from the Kennedy Library came [to Los Angeles] and visited me and I talked their ear off.
Q. I heard. That’s when they discovered that you know what you’re talking about.
A. Oh, yeah, I think they started to get bored. (Laughs)
Q. I don’t consider your comedy to be very political. Is that fair?
A. No, we don’t do that. I have my own interests and beliefs that come out on the show sometimes. But as an entertainer, I’m apolitical.
Q. That’s by design?
A. Yeah, it’s also what moves me. You paint what you see. I’ve always been more interested in the kind of comedy that inspired me, and that’s more, like, Warner Bros. cartoons, frankly. I kind of liked the silly, universal comedy. My favorite kind of comedy is stuff that looks good even when the sound is off. When the news quits on us and really isn’t very interesting, we can just be silly.
Q. Looks good when the sound is off. Hmm. So that’s why you’re a big Sarah Silverman fan.
A. (Laughs) She always looks good, yes.
Q. The fact that this is an election year is not irrelevant to you, but you don’t make hay with it.
A. Our show responds to its environment so we’ll do more about politics. But we also live in a world where TV become so specialized. [Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert so specialize in that and do such an amazing job at it, you can tune into my show and we’ll be doing a silly bit with Will Ferrell that has nothing to do with anything. We don’t exclusively work that side of the street.
Q. Anything you make a point of doing while you’re home?
A. Yes, I make a point of getting a Pino’s pizza from Cleveland Circle. I also might try to jog around the Brookline reservoir if I get the chance because I used to do that when I was at Brookline High. I was on the track team for awhile. I used to have to go there and do lap after lap after lap. What I’ll probably do is eat three Pino’s pizzas and then go jogging.
Q. Are your parents, or your family, going to the JFK Library event?
A. I hear it’s a no-Irish event. They finally classed it up.
Q. We saw a lot of your sister in “The Fighter.”
A. Yes, Kate. She’s great.
Q. She plays Lowell really well for someone who grew up in Brookline.
A. Yeah, my mother tried to get her to sound more Brookline growing up, but it didn’t work.