Wild applause rang thunderously throughout the New York studio. Brian McCann, BC ‘87, had just finished a stand-up appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. The tall, gangly, red-headed comedian hustled over to McCann, shook his hand, thanked him for his set, and signed off for the night.
The show cut to a commercial. Conan leaned into McCann and whispered, “We’ve got to get you on the show full-time.”
McCann wasn’t shocked. He had met Conan in Chicago and been on Late Night a few times, but it quickly set in that he had just been offered a spot at one of most coveted television programs of the early ’90s. This was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down.
McCann was at Boston College from the fall of ’83 to the spring of ’87. “When I was back on campus everything about the atmosphere felt very similar,” McCann said, having visited a few weeks ago. “I was surprised Mary Ann’s was still a thing. The only thing that really seemed different was there was more trouble trying to get to various tailgates.”
He had a small group of friends that he roomed with and went out with on the weekends. They greatly enjoyed and appreciated each other’s company. They didn’t see much of a reason to break their bubble.
While McCann wrote a comic strip for The Heights, he never gave much thought to practicing comedy while he was here. “I auditioned my freshman year for My Mother’s Fleabag, but that wasn’t my cup of tea and nor was I their cup of tea and, once that didn’t happen, I really gave it no more thought,” McCann said. “I enjoyed hanging out with my friends and I did a semester abroad over in England, but I didn’t start working in comedy until after college.”
McCann wasn’t focused on what he considered to be more frivolous activities at school. He wanted to have a good time with his small group of friends and graduate with good job prospects. That’s all that really mattered to him.
“I began as a psychology major,” McCann said. “That lasted all of one semester. Then I double majored in communications and English. At the time I didn’t know what I was doing with an English degree, but right out of college I saw that when you’re applying for a job, everybody loves an English major.”
After graduating from BC in ’87 and before being offered a spot at Late Night in ’94, McCann moved to Chicago, a few miles away from his hometown, hoping to launch a daily comic strip. He would send his strips to several Chicago-based newspapers and they were often published, but soon McCann found a new calling. “I started taking Improv classes and doing stand-up just to work on my comedic writing skills and all of that took off for me,” McCann said. “I let the comic strip idea go. I went with what was working, which was performing.”
While working in Chicago, McCann met and got to know Andy Richter, a comedian who would soon go onto be (and still is) Conan O’Brien’s right-hand man and announcer.
“Andy and I hung out together and performed together a lot and that’s how I got in with Conan,” McCann said. “I met Conan right after he got picked for Late Night. He came into Chicago and he was looking for writers and he came to one of my shows and we spoke after. He was really nice, but there wasn’t a place for me, or my sensibility, on his staff at that time. He had me on the show a couple times and finally offered me a spot on his writing staff.”
While McCann was grateful and thrilled with his new post on Late Night in New York, he acknowledges that working at 30 Rockefeller it wasn’t all rainbows and peacocks.
“It could get very stressful,” he said. “There’re always 12-14 hour days. Any show like that is run by the host’s mood and Conan put a lot of pressure on himself. When he was stressed, the whole operation would feel pretty stressful. But when we felt like we were in a groove those were probably some of the most fun, most productive, and probably best times for viewers and staff alike. There’s a lot of truth to the idea that if you’re having a lot of fun, it shows.”
Throughout his career at Late Night, McCann created some of the most memorable and hysterical characters the show had ever seen. McCann thought up and played Preparation-H Raymond, the Bulletproof Legs Guy, Dave Yarvolo (the world’s oldest stuntman), the 19th-century douche bag, and most notably the Fed-Ex pope. Any minute description of any of these characters would fail to do them justice. They are holistically emblematic of McCann’s humor and of what made Conan O’Brien’s Late Show unique and successful. All late night programs had a monologue and guests, but they never encapsulated such a wide spectrum of characters and stories as Late Night did. McCann was essential to this aspect of Late Night and the prominence of his characters on the program prove it. Each of his characters is wacky and hilarious in their own respect and undoubtedly they deserve a browsing through at teamcoco.com/mccann.
When Conan moved out to Los Angeles in ’08 to start his doomed stint at The Tonight Show, McCann decided that he wouldn’t move-out to LA and, instead, that he would fly out every week to work on the show. McCann’s girlfriend and his daughter stayed in New York and McCann decided that he would eventually stop flying out to L.A. “I told myself from the beginning that I’d only be flying out for three years,” McCann said. “That was my limit. That’s no way to live a life. I decided I would need to move on and continue to work in New York.”
Conan’s time on Tonight Show was famously short. NBC decided it wanted to put Jay Leno back at 11:30, the allotted time-slot for Tonight Show. Conan refused. After several months of negotiations, Conan (and his staff) walked.
“The whole Tonight Show episode was stressful from the get-go and it got worse until it collapsed,” McCann remembers. “Conan didn’t want any characters that worked so well at Late Night. In his mind, they couldn’t exist at that time slot. When The Tonight Show ended it was simultaneously disastrous and hilarious.”
O’Brien started Conan on TBS and a few years later, at the end of his three-year obligation, McCann left Conan and started working primarily in New York. “Now I write and produce shows in New York,” McCann said. “Up-and-comers are being given late night shows left and right and I try to work with them and give them the best opportunity possible to see their vision. When I’m not writing for TV shows, I’ve been doing improv and stand-up around town and voice-overs for commercials.”
McCann notices how much things have changed since he entered the late-night business almost 20 years ago. “The expansion for late night has been insane,” he said. “If you count them, there’s like 17 or 18 shows. When I got into it, there were the coveted three programs and it was an honor to be working at any of them. With the explosion of networks and the internet, there’s an endless stream of programs now.”
While this change may appear overwhelming, McCann feels that it’s a positive change for the industry. “I think it bodes well for anyone who wants to get into the business, he said. “I don’t think it’s nearly as lucrative a prospect as it used to be. There’s more opportunity to do whatever you want, wherever you want. I didn’t see it coming, but I think it’s a promotion of creativity.”
With 20 years in late night and comedy under his belt, McCann has some more-than-credible advice for anyone wanting to join comedy.
“Young writers need to practice everyday and try to perform for people, even if they’re not a performer, he said. “They need to find a vehicle to channel their writing and to get real feedback from real people. It’s work, work, and work—writing non-stop, every single days. There’s a lot of truth to that formula.”
Brian McCann should know—he built a 20-year long career off of it. And he’s still at it.
Featured Graphic By Breck Wills / Heights Graphics