×

Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels, Al Jean Spin Harvard Lampoon Yarns

Trio discuss humor mag's influence at closing sesh of USC's Comedy@SCA fest

Three high-profile alumni of the Harvard Lampoon, the university’s undergraduate humor publication, gathered Sunday at USC to discuss “The Simpsons” and the steps to a successful career in comedy, among other topics.

Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels and Al Jean, all of whom worked together on “The Simpsons” in the 1990s (Jean remains showrunner of the Fox toon), took part in a panel discussion about the Lampoon’s impact on Hollywood.

Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell”) moderated; Jim Downey, a “Saturday Night Live” alum, was expected, but couldn’t make the sesh that closed out USC’s second annual Comedy @SCA fest.

Although Downey was absent, the panelists lauded his trailblazing efforts as the first to go from the Lampoon to “SNL,” noting that he paved the way for many at Harvard.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do, I didn’t know how I was going to do it,” O’Brien said, of his decision to follow Downey into the world of comedy writing. “But I remember thinking it’s not going to be medical school, it’s not going to be law school, the male modeling is not going to happen, and it’s going to be, definitely, me being in show business.”

Daniels, who was O’Brien’s writing partner when they left Harvard, recalled the hardships that they endured after heading to Los Angeles in 1985. The two taught SAT prep courses, shared a $600 car and tiny apartment, and bit their fingernails over stressful three-week contracts.

O’Brien remembered being so stressed out that he gave himself shingles — in one eye. He also told the aud about the pains of working as a secretary for an attractive woman at a suede and leather house, which he likened to the set of a contempo porn film.

“Give a white male from Harvard a frickin’ chance is what we’re here to say,” O’Brien quipped.

O’Donnell, who worked as a writer on “The West Wing” before landing his own MSNBC talkshow, was more of a ringleader than a moderator. He handed a majority of the question-asking duties over to the packed house at the Eileen Norris Cinema Theater. But he did elucidate some of the differences between writing for drama and comedy — at least in terms of stress.

“The only thing that could make us feel better about our jobs was looking at the comedy guys,” O’Donnell said, noting comedy writers’ long hours and seemingly endless rewrites. “The things you’re going for (as a drama writer) are not actually as difficult to achieve as a laugh.”

O’Brien acknowledged that laughs are definitely tough to get — and the money jokes don’t materialize out of thin air. Comedy writers are definitely subject to Malcolm Gladwell’s rule of having to put in 10,000 hours before you ever start to become proficient.

“Anybody who makes a living doing comedy developed this mechanism when they were two or three years old,” he said. “It’s a hyper-developed defense mechanism. … This is all I had. I couldn’t fight, no girls were interested, I couldn’t sing, this is all I had. And I developed it and developed it and developed it — and it’s sad.”

O’Brien, Daniels and Jean said their tenure at the Harvard humor mag had a big impact on their sensibilities.

Jean applauded the humor mag’s lack of nepotism, underlining the fact that the Castle isn’t just filled with a bunch of East Coasters that know each other — you have to be picked. He defined the Lampoon’s sensibility as: “If you trust us, you’re an idiot.”

Group reminisced about their time spent in the Castle, with O’Brien highlighting one of his favorite memories: a John Candy anecdote.

O’Brien, who served in the lofty role of president of the Lampoon, was tasked with greeting and showing Candy around. He said it was Candy — in between dinner toasts and éclair binges — who gave him his best advice for comedy: “It’s not something you try,” Candy told O’Brien.

Daniels said the best advice he ever got came from O’Brien, who always took himself seriously and wouldn’t let the duo do any “crap work.” Then, Daniels — after being buttered up by O’Brien as a wizard of comedy writing — gave some advice of his own.

“Put your writers together like a baseball team,” Daniels said, elaborating that the people who are stronger at story and character should be in the upper, more senior level roles, and those better at jokes, should be younger, less-experienced scribes.

Jean said he took inspiration from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “The Simpsons’” James L. Brooks, who told Jean that even though “Simpsons” was “an animated show, you have to believe that they’re real characters.”

“That’s infused in all our best moments,” Jean said.

The trio indulged in their most memorable “Simpsons” work — mostly at the expense of O’Brien, who became the butt of a panel-long joke for an episode he penned in for season four, titled “Marge vs. the Monorail.”

Many have remarked that “The Simpsons,” 25 seasons deep, owes its longevity to Brooks and Matt Groening’s mission to keep the toon as realistic as possible. O’Brien admitted that because the “Monorail” episode dipped into the surreal more so than others, he was chided  once for “breaking” the show. 

But that fear of breaking something funny is not the worst thing in the world. In a way, it’s necessary.

Said O’Brien: “Insecurity drives every performer, and anybody who isn’t nervous or a little bit insecure before they get up onstage is a bad performer.”

The Lampoon panel closed out the second annual Comedy@SCA fest, part of USC’s Comedy@SCA initiative, an interdisciplinary pathway through the school’s cinematic arts curriculum.

(Pictured from left: Lawrence O’Donnell, Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels and Al Jean)

More Biz

  • Peter Chernin'Spies in Disguise' film premiere,

    Disney and Chernin Entertainment Parting Ways (EXCLUSIVE)

    Disney and Peter Chernin are ending Chernin Entertainment’s long-standing film production deal with 20th Century Fox (recently rebranded to 20th Century Studios), Variety has learned. The split was a mutual and amicable one, driven by the simple fact that Disney rarely brings on third-party partners to finance its feature films. “I have nothing but praise for [...]

  • NAB Show Partners With Variety for

    NAB Show Partners With Variety for Executive Leadership Summit

    The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show has announced that it will be partnering with Variety to produce the third annual Executive Leadership Summit, taking place Sunday, April 19 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. NAB Show is the world’s largest convention encompassing media, entertainment and technology, where global visionaries convene to bring content to [...]

  • peacock-ads-NBCU

    NBCU's Peacock Marks Media's Latest Try to Connect Consumers, Commercials

    In an era when consumers feel more empowered to avoid TV commercials, NBCUniversal is the latest media company to try to get them to bring ads back into their TV lives. One of the key selling points of big streaming-video services like Netflix and Disney Plus is that subscribers don’t have to endure the commercial [...]

  • Our Planet BTS BBC

    U.K. Entertainment Industry Moves Beyond London

    When Channel 4 launches its daytime current-affairs program “The Steph Show” this spring, it will mark a milestone in the U.K. broadcaster’s output.  Like most of the British film and TV industries, Channel 4 has been heavily London-centric. By contrast, “The Steph Show,” starring journalist and presenter Steph McGovern, was commissioned by the network’s new [...]

  • Lucian Grainge

    Universal Music Chief Lucian Grainge to Receive Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame

    Lucian Grainge — chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company — will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next Thursday (Jan. 23). Fittingly, the ceremony will take place in front of the historic Capitol Records building; Capitol is one of the several Universal-owned labels under Grainge’s domain. Universal, recently [...]

  • John Ross Promoted to Vice President,

    John Ross Promoted to Vice President, Features and Events, at Variety

    Variety’s three-time Emmy Award-winning producer and managing director of features and events John Ross has been upped to VP, features and events. Ross, who exec produces Variety’s Actors on Actors series, has been instrumental to the development of Variety’s features business, including the Young Hollywood issue, the Pride issue, Showman of the Year, the Billion [...]

  • Deborah Dugan Recording Academy Head

    Deborah Dugan’s Attorney Slams Grammys With Fiery Statement After Ouster

    Less than 12 hours after news broke that Deborah Dugan had been placed on administrative leave from her post as president/CEO of the Recording Academy, her attorney fired back with a statement. “What has been reported is not nearly the story that needs to be told. When our ability to speak is not restrained by [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content