In 1994 Conan O’Brien had David Letterman as a guest on his show. This visit saved Conan’s show. It was not doing well prior to Letterman coming on as a guest. Having started only half a year prior Conan felt the network pressure bearing down with the slow ratings start. He was already a complete wildcard to be given a late night show, and the slow start was making the novice talk show host worried.
Letterman showing up as a guest was a big deal. Conan elaborates in a monologue years later, reminding us of the media landscape in 1994. Letterman was the late night king, really, the biggest thing on television. He held a ton of sway in that moment of time.
And the appearance did the trick. It saves Conan’s ratings, gave him and his staff a confidence boost that Letterman would go on his show at all, and he and his ensemble of quirky late night characters lives on past the nearly unforgiving start.
Watching the interview itself was remarkable to me because it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that I would start to watch Conan as a high schooler. I didn’t know much of Conan prior to the early 2000’s. I knew he had been around but didn’t know anything contextually. I just viewed him as the absolute funniest person on late night.
To hear and see this interview of 1994 versions of Conan and Letterman, knowing Conan’s show was on thin ice and not even a year old, was like watching old film of yourself for the first time. You are familiar with you, but not the you you are viewing on tape. It was a totally different set for the show. It had the same feel though of Conan as, say, 1999 and onward, with his zany bits and wacky humor.
I guess I was simply amazed to see whacky Conan in 1994 on a tv stage different from any I had seen him on. It was a case of not having this sort of banter and humor occurring within the timeframe. My memory couldn’t reconcile seeing Conan in 1994 doing his thing. I had to begin a backfilling process and connect some dots to get a new perspective of something familiar in a setting and time I’ve not seen before.
While I was watching this Conan timewarp, an interview with Yeonmi Park and Lex Fridman pop up in my Youtube feed. I immediately click. Park is a North Korean defector. She described the completely alternate universe that North Korea is. Listening to someone who lived it first hand from their perspective is incredibly impactful, more so than second hand accounts.
At one point she brings up the Arduous March, or the North Korean famine of 1994-1998. It began in 1994, and millions perished due to starvation. The details are horrific as she describes it all.
And thus, an information overload epiphany gelled together in my mind.
1994. Putting something into that timeframe I didn’t have there before. Contextualizing a timeframe in my life with something familiar yet entirely different.
I was already conditioning my mind just minutes prior how alternate 1994 was to me to see Conan’s early shows I never saw before, on a set I never saw before.
But as Park began to describe more about growing up in North Korea, not having maps of the world, having their calendar’s start at year one when Kim Il-Sun was born in 1912, among many other alternate realities contained inside of North Korea, I began making my own startling connection by adding an entire country’s suffering into the 1994 mixture of events.
To realize Park’s people and herself were beginning to endure a famine of four years and that they didn’t know what a Conan or Letterman or late night stand up or anything Western was other than that we are American bastards, felt like anything minutes prior to me learning about late night talk show ratings and caring for Conan’s career was nothing but trivial nonsense. To realize there was no context for her and her citizens to fit what it means to be on the brink of losing a late night talk show within the first year because of poor ratings was dark comedy at best.
I know this is an absurdity I’m picturing here. But I really let my mind sink into that timeframe, that place, the reality which is an absurd truth for sure.
All this brought to you by a YouTube algorithm.
The sequence of YouTube wormhole viewing finally aligned and made a connection for me good enough to watch back to back alternate realities be explained which were occurring simultaneously in 1994.