The news has been nothing but stories about childhoods getting ruined forever lately, and whether the cause is guns, pedophiles, racists, or all-female movie franchise reboots, the result is the same: permanently traumatized children and clinically-depressed adults. Even supposedly inspiring stories about children these days are usually framed around a kid successfully overcoming one of the pointless, cruel obstacles we’ve built for them: paying off “school lunch debt” for classmates, hacking together homemade replacements for medical equipment, selling enough lemonade to purchase a black market kidney, and so on. So Conan O’Brien’s decision to post a Late Night episode on YouTube from the summer of 1997, filmed in front of an audience consisting entirely of children, couldn’t come at a better time. Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when seeing the phrase “a studio audience filled with schoolchildren” didn’t immediately trigger a panic attack:
The idea of booking Dave Foley and Myron Kandel as guests for an audience of schoolkids is so crystalline and perfect that everything else pale in comparison, but there’s an incredible amount of great stuff here. The overarching joke—that Conan has wildly misunderstood what children are interested in—plays out over and over again in increasingly funny ways, from jokes about celebrities kids don’t care about (“Y’all know her from Yentil, right?”), to “Naughtyland,” a time-out area for badly behaved children that Conan keeps threatening the crowd with, where they are given balloons, candy, and unlimited credit at the Disney Store. Of course, Conan actually does understand what jokes will appeal to children—the Syncro-Vox bit with Bill Clinton hooting and hollering and making fart noises is a real crowd-pleaser—but he’s also not above exploiting their youth, inexperience, and willingness to play along when they’re not entirely sure what’s happening, as in the bizarre moment where a dressing room full of kids claim to have recurring nightmares about Robert Stack. Robert Stack!
The highlight of the episode, a “Sick Exotic Bird” parade featuring giant bald eagle, owl, and flamingo mascot costumes that have been modified so that they can vomit on the kids, is explicitly premised on giant birds vomiting on children, a joke that, like much of the episode, is a little out of step with the current zeitgeist. There are so many people out there making the world terrifying for kids already—and it’s gotten bad enough that even Conan O’Brien himself is earnest and sincere about it—that the tried-and-true “authority figure turns out to be sadistic” frame no longer plays as well as it used to when children are the butt of the joke. That’s kind of a shame, because if there were ever a time when kids needed to understand that authority figures are often stupid, evil, and dishonest it’s now. Although the adult world has disgraced itself so comprehensively that there’s little risk kids won’t get the message to never, ever trust us, it seems like it’d be more pleasant to learn that lesson from a talk show host promising Dustin Hoffman and delivering Snoopy than from a CBP officer helping Bethany Christian Services keep their shelves stocked. But even though this 22-year-old television episode unavoidably serves as a reminder that everything is terrible and keeps getting worse, it’s got some solid laughs. Take them wherever you can find them, whatever your age.