Happy Birthday, Conan O’Brien! Five Fast Facts About The Late Night Funnyman

Conan O’Brien, who came seemingly out of nowhere to take over the NBC Late Night show from David Letterman in 1993, went on to become a fixture of the late night talk show genre with three different shows on two networks over the past 21 years. The Brookline, Massachusetts-born son of a doctor (dad) and lawyer (mom) is having a big week. On Sunday he hosted the MTV Movie Awards and today, April 18, well, today’s his birthday.

Conan O’Brien will be 51 years old. Let’s help him celebrate with five strangely fascinating facts about the red-haired comic who goes by the nickname Coco.

Conan O’Brien Is A Braniac, Graduating Manga Cum Laude From Harvard

As an undergrad at the prestigious Ivy League Harvard University, Conan O’Brien already showed signs of the talent that would make him one of the top figures in American comedy. Not only did he graduate magna cum laude in 1985 with a degree in American History and Literature, he wrote for the university’s long-standing humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon. Some other famous former Harvard Lampoon writers include novelist John Updike, author and journalist George Plimpton and biographer Walter Isaacson.

Conan O’Brien was elected president of The Harvard Lampoon two times, an honor shared only by the famed humorist Robert Benchley.

Conan O’Brien Wrote One Of Saturday Night Live’s Most Infamous Sketches

After graduation, Conan O’Brien got a job as a writer on the HBO sketch comedy series Not Necessarily The News. From there, he was hired onto the writing staff of Saturday Night Live, where he stayed from 1988 to 1991.

In 1988 he wrote one of the show’s most daring, and important sketches — though it took a few tries to get it on the air. Titled “Nude Beach,” the sketch became notorious for using the word “penis” no fewer than 48 times in a four minute comedy bit. Basically, the whole thing consists of a bunch of guys at a nude beach commenting casually about each others’ penises, with lines like, “Hey, Ted, how’s your penis?” “Not bad.” And so on.

The sketch was originally supposed to air on an episode hosted by Carl Weathers. A version with Tom Hanks was taped but never aired. “Nude Beach” was finally broadcast with Matthew Broderick. The sketch was the first time the word “penis” had been used on the show, and it is credited with opening the door for later, off-color sketches such as the Molly Shannon “Schweddy Balls” sketch and the Andy Samberg / Justin Timberlake “D*** In A Box.”

Conan O’Brien Hired Another Comedian Who Would Later Become Famous To Write For Him

When Conan O’Brien was pulled from the Simpsons writing staff to take over the 12:30 pm Late Night slot on NBC, vacated by David Letterman when he jumped to CBS, his first order of business was to put together a writing staff. One of his picks was a young comic named Louis C.K.. Conan liked Louis C.K.’s work so much that he eventually offered him the head writer position, but even though O’Brien went to bat for him and persuaded NBC to meet Louis C.K.’s salary demands, Louis quit anyway to pursue his own stand-up comedy career.

Conan O'Brien writing staff
Conan O'Bren, center with guitar, and his original Late Night writing staff.

Late Night With Conan O’Brien Was Nearly Cancelled By NBC Many Times

Conan O’Brien was completely unknown, as far as the TV-viewing pubic was concerned, when NBC decided to hand him the 12:30 pm Late Night slot that Letterman had occupied since 1982. His show got off to a rocky start, bombarded by hostile critics and treated with general puzzlement by viewers. At first, NBC put Conan O’Brien on 13-week contracts and in 1994, reportedly contemplated going to a week-to-week contract, meaning he could be pulled from the air at any time. But Conan O’Brien defied expectations, holding down the Late Night host’s chair until 2009 — longer even than Letterman — and winning over critics and viewers in the process.

Conan O’Brien Is An Ordained Minister And Once Performed A Same Sex Wedding On Air

Though raised as a Roman Catholic, in 2010 Conan O’Brien was ordained as a minister in the Universal Life Church. The designation requires nothing of him, but it does authorize him to perform legal wedding ceremonies. On November 4, 2011 — on his TBS Network late night show Conan — he used that authority to wed his costume designer Scott Cronick to Cronick’s partner, David Gorshein.

The ceremony made Conan O’Brien the first TV personality to officiate a same sex wedding on the air.