Conan went from being a writer on SNL and the Simpson’s in his 20s, to taking over for Letterman as he turned 30. Talk about a promotion. No pressure!
To make things worse, he wasn’t just filling big shoes, he was also charged by the network to help find a younger audience. That gave him the creative leeway to try new things, but it also came with an enormous amount of scrutiny.
In 1993, network television relied on Nielsen boxes for feedback. Since Conan’s late-night career was basically an experiment, he was living and dying by these ratings at first.
He told Mike Birbiglia how he and his staff would make what they thought was an amazing episode, but then their ratings for that night would suck. He was tortured by this inexplicable feedback and the constant threat of being let go by his employer for three (long) years. Again, remember – he started this gig when he was just 30 years old. Put yourself in those shoes.
Eventually, he realized the Nielsen ratings and the quality of the show weren’t connected.
There were maybe 80 people watching with boxes on a given night, and if one of them was in a bad mood his rating was in trouble. Conversely, if one accidentally drank too much coffee at dinner, he might look like a genius.
He realized the feedback’s quality sucked. It was out of his control. The only thing that mattered was making the best show they knew they could make. Critics and network exec’s be damned.
And that’s how Conan’s sense of humor went on to shape a whole generation of comedians (and regular people like me), who were watching in awe, but not hooked up to a feedback system that didn’t even matter anyway. They did the best work they could do, despite the pressure, and we’re all better for it.
Take it to heart: the quality of the feedback only matters if it helps you to make/do better work.
ps. If this story resonates with you at all, I highly recommend Conan’s appearance on the Working It Out podcast with Mike Birbiglia.