Mike Sweeney switches coasts while staying above the late night fray as head writer of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
Planning is not something in Mike Sweeney’s tool box. Despite working in the belly of the high pressure beast that is the late night TV ratings wars, the head writer of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien doesn’t really do worrying either. He is thus unphased by the incessant industry chatter about the new show’s foundering ratings in comparison to its predecessor with Jay Leno and main competition, the Late Show with David Letterman. O’Brien himself has been here before. The former Harvard Lampoon alumnus and Simpsons and SNL writer was tapped to replace David Letterman on NBC in 1993. He and his writing staff survived initially tepid ratings and critical skewers to become a hit.
Sweeney, who moved with Conan from Late Night to The Tonight Show, is downright laidback in the thick of the fray. It’s the kind of calm some people get when they have personally experienced jumping into the abyss, like when Sweeney, without a dime of savings, abandoned a Rutgers law degree and a young career as a Manhattan trial attorney to become a stand-up comedian making 50 bucks a week.
It seems being really, really funny is a better coping device for stomach-in-the-throat risk taking than planning.
After a stint as the warm-up comedian on The Maury Povich Show, he applied unsuccessfully to be a writer on the fledgling Late Night with Conan O’Brien in the early ‘90s. Instead he took a gig as that show’s warm-up, and by 1995 they offered him a writing post.
It wasn’t a plan, he just kept being funny.
“I don’t know what I’m doing after this phone call,” Sweeney quips dryly and a little too convincingly during an interview with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site. He talked about “the talk” and how writing for a show like The Tonight Show simply doesn’t afford one time to worry.
You have been through a number of unexpected radical changes in your career. From a writing perspective, how have you found this experience of changing coasts and timeslots with Conan?
Photo: © 2009 NBC
Conan O’Brien and Mike Sweeney on the set of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.
It hasn’t been that different, actually. It’s been the same... kind of. We’re doing five shows a week and NBC has always kind of trusted Conan, and so there’s never been network interference, even now.
Even amid all the scrutiny of the new time slot and all the press?
Yeah, I dunno. I don’t even feel the scrutiny I think because I just kind of walk into the building every morning and then leave at night. Plus I’m not very bright, so I’m not able to perceive when there’s danger afoot.
There could be people screaming, “Fire!” and pointing at you...
Exactly. The idea of higher scrutiny seems abstract to me in a way.
In the simplest terms, what was the game plan? I know you’re not a game plan guy...
My god! You’ve already got me nailed!
But was the game plan in the writer’s room fundamentally the same, like, “Let’s not revamp everything. Let’s do what got us here?”
We’ve definitely worked on coming up with new pieces for The Tonight Show. It was a good opportunity to do different things just for change’s sake. All the writers who moved from New York, you know, have been there a while, so it’s a good team, and it just seemed like the natural thing to do.
So that writing unit remains the same but with the new opportunities presented by the new locale?
Right. I think we looked at moving out here the same way we have when we’ve traveled the show. We’d go to Chicago, San Francisco or Toronto in February and we’d always get very excited. It’s very stimulating to do something different. I think it really energized all the writers. We looked at moving to L.A. in the same way. It’s just a new location, and all the things that come with that. It provides a lot of new opportunities for new ideas, so it’s been fun.
Because so many of the writers are from New York, has it been difficult to grapple with the tone of jokes now that you’re in L.A.? Even though it’s a national show, have you had to check yourselves at all?
The only thing we do, which we did in the old show, is not to have the L.A. jokes be too local. We try do avoid jokes about reservoir bonds in L.A. County, for example. We tried to be the same way in New York.
Are there new parameters as far as the tone of the monologue jokes or the bits, which have always been, shall I say, outside the box? I mean, Michael McDonald summer camp and Masturbating Bear… need I say more?
Michael McDonald summer camp? Wow! Excellent.
That is a personal favorite with my crew.
That’s an example of how a lot of the sketch stuff is written and produced by an individual, or teams of writers. A lot of the writers perform on the show as well, and that’s always been the case.
If you write something, you don’t hand it off to a production team. I mean, as far as producing it, writing it, and editing it, the writer does all of that. They get all the glory if it’s great, and if it’s not, you can still blame someone else.
But has there been a need to straighten things out a little for the earlier time slot?
I think we just try to stick to stuff that makes us laugh because otherwise you loose your bearings if you’re trying to second guess whether something is appropriate for a certain time of day. I don’t even know how you figure something like that out. We just go by the old rule of, if we’re laughing, it’s funny.
Although, sometimes we will rehearse stuff I know is going to get cut, but we do it for ourselves.
For your souls.
For our souls. And sometimes it gets on, which is a grave mistake.
Not to harp on it, but none of this pressure in the press about Leno and you and David Letterman and you, and the ratings, none of that insinuates itself into the writer’s room where people start getting tight? How do you keep that stuff out?
Right. I try not to. I don’t watch other shows because I don’t think that’s a healthy thing to do. You don’t want to be influenced by what somebody else is doing, and also, I don’t have any time. I don’t have the time to watch any TV.
So I just kind of block that stuff out because it’s nothing I have any control over. Getting into that external stuff that’s going on is kind of like empty calories in a way, so I don’t get into it. Just putting the show on is so time consuming, I don’t really have time to get into all this exterior stuff. It’s kind of simple.