Conan O'Brien speaking at the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con International in San Diego, California. Credit: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA
"At some point, like in fifth grade, I remember, or fourth grade, I used to be in plays all the time, and I used to write things. And I thought, this is something I'd like to do, and I was fascinated. For some reason, I had a fascination with movies from the '30s and '40s, because they were shown a lot here in Boston, on the UHF stations. I don't know if anyone will remember, but in the days before cable there was the ABC affiliate, the NBC affiliate, the CBS affiliate, and then channel 56, and channel 38. And they would show old movies. That's all they would show. And I used to watch those, and it was lost on me that these were made 50 years ago.
And so, I would watch these movies like Yankee Doodle Dandy where Jimmy Cagney is talking real fast, and he's dancing, and he's singing. And I would say, that's what you need to know to be an entertainer. Of course, it's the 1970s. Like an idiot, I don't understand there's been a huge cultural movement. So I go to my parents, and I said-- I'm even talking like Jimmy Cagney, and I'm like, "Now, see here, you." I said, "I need to learn how to be a tap dancer." My parents were like, "What are you talking about?" And I said, "I want to be in show business someday, and this kid's got to know how to tap his toes, you see?" And they were like, "What are you smoking?"...
But they went and they got me a tap dancing teacher, God bless them. They went and they called all around, and they found this guy, Stanley Brown, who had been the protégé of Bill Bojangles Robinson. And this is all completely true.
And I went, and he's this older African-American gentleman, who was a great tap dancer, and he lived in a dilapidated studio. Everyone there was a jazz dancer, and everyone was black, and then this white kid with orange hair would show up with tap shoes under his arm. ...
Then a few years later, I thought, I'm in Boston [at Harvard]. And at the time, show business could not have felt further away. The only experience any of us had had with any kind of celebrity was Robert Urich was in Spencer for Hire, and they shot a few exteriors around here. And that was my experience with show business is that I knew someone, who knew someone, who saw Robert Urich in Filene's Basement. So I remember thinking, "This isn't going to happen. My dad, he's a scientist, and my mom's a lawyer, and forget it."
So I buckled down to be a really hardcore student, and really worked hard, and was very serious, and then got into Harvard thinking, "I'm going to be a serious writer of letters, and I'm going to do great things!" And within days of getting to Harvard, my roommate John O'Connor said, "I'm going to the Harvard Lampoon to check it out." I didn't really know much about the Harvard Lampoon, but I went along, and the rest of it just happened. The next thing you know, I was blown away that people valued humor as something other than just, this is what you do for your friends to make them laugh.