Brow Beat

Watch Conan O’Brien Slowly Lose Interest in a Joke He’s Rehearsing

Conan O'Brien making an alarmed face as a seagull looms in front of the camera.
Although Conan O’Brien does not appear to have lost interest in this still image from his show—if anything he looks slightly alarmed—in fact, at this point he had already checked out.

The traditional outtake, of the TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes variety, works like this: There’s a joke that the host or actor is trying to tell or a scene they’re trying to get through, then they screw it up. The underlying premise is that the writers had a good joke or dramatic beat in mind and the people executing it fail to pull it off: the mistake is on camera. The “Scraps” feature on Conan is different: The premise is that the writers had a terrible idea, which Conan O’Brien then quite correctly declines to execute. It’s a million times funnier seeing the aftermath of the off-screen mistake, because you get a slow build as Conan slowly checks out:

It’s fascinating to see Conan O’Brien lose interest and decide to cut his losses in real time. It happens in a few distinct stages, which I will dutifully walk you through here, both to break up the paragraphs on the page and to give the impression this article has more of a structure than it actually does:

• Stage One: Conan is still trying to make the joke hit.
Stage Two: Conan gives a deadpan deconstruction of the premise—“You’re replicating what happened”—from which it is still conceivable that the joke might recover.
Stage Three: Conan decides that whatever he comes up with will be funnier than the sketch as written, so he introduces a bizarre accent and lines of the “So I says to Mabel, I says,” variety. This is the moment of no return, which is why you can see a writer hang his head in his hands at this point.
Stage Four: Conan mercilessly roasts his own employees for ever suggesting the sketch to begin with.

So I says to Mabel, I says, “Do you think it would be better If I just wrote about what happens in this sketch, instead of making some dumbass structural joke in which I lose interest in my own idea in the same way?” And she says, “Well, I never! Martinis! Algonquins!” And so I says, “It’s kind of getting to be a crutch, and the execution is never very good, wot wot? Like, I literally used the line ‘So I says to Mabel, I says,’ and now I’m just spelling out the joke. And where am I even supposed to be from with this accent?” So then Dottie, who I didn’t even know was in the room, says, “You still might land this plane if you have the courage to follow through and mercilessly roast the writer who came up with this bad idea, i.e., you, but my guess is you’re going to half-ass that part with a one sentence kicker about being disappointed in yourself.” That Dottie! Always on my last nerve!

This was a terrible idea from start to finish and I’m extremely disappointed in myself.