I am, as I have mentioned, a sentimental man. And that, of course, is a fancy way of saying I shed a tear more easily than your average 32-year-old man. If everything's lined up right, I've been known to get a little emotional when watching "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." I aint proud, but that's the way it is, you callous, heartless hipster ogre.
Anyway, while watching the last episode of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" last Friday night, I felt some tears welling up as the episode drew to a close. It's not that I have a strong emotional attachment to Conan; when I see the show, I still love it, but, to be honest, I've only seen a handful of episodes during what will lovingly be recalled as "The Working Years" in my biography (pre-order it now for 2048 delivery!). But I do feel a strong pull to those years I spent in the lobby of 30 Rock, wasting my precious late teens waiting for celebrities to sign autographs. I don't really miss the collecting all that much (and, based on the YouTube videos I see, I would sooner visit a friend who sleeps with an unstable chimpanzee than resume collecting in the NBC lobby), but those trips were my first real solo endeavors into the city and served as the beginning of my exploration and eventual love of Manhattan. And who knows if that would've happened if Conan O'Brien hadn't started his show 16 years ago? Well, OK, it would've likely happened anyway, but Conan's show certainly sped up the process.
I first went to 30 Rock, though, as an audience member (first time I saw a TV taping, I think), for Episode #14, where the guests were the stellar trio of Ellen Cleghorne, Ronald Reagan Jr., and Juliana Hatfield. And, to the best of my recollection, the guests never really got better in the five or six other times I was in the audience. And they certainly weren't great the day I figured I'd give autograph collecting a whirl, when I saw people waiting in the lobby after I came down the elevators after a taping featuring Dick Cavett, Dorian Harewood, and Hank Flamingo (though the lead singer of Hank Flamingo, Trent Summar, is still pretty cool). I figured that might be a fun thing to do. Occasionally, it was, so long as the celebrities actually signed and the collectors didn't get too obnoxious.
There was a lot of boring downtime for me at 30 Rock, and, as the years went on, that downtime turned from boring to maddening. I remember one early evening spent waiting for, hell, I don't even recall, in which a fellow collector grilled me about my opposition to the death penalty while popping out exciting hypotheticals that started like "So, you're saying that if someone killed your parents..."
But there were a few years where the conversations were lighter and more entertaining and the characters made the time pass. Plus, occasionally, the "Saturday Night Live" cast would be walking around, which is when I snapped this photo of Chris Farley.
After a few years, I was somehow anointed the official spotter for musical guests coming off the elevator, a job I did pretty well. But sometimes the music guests were so well known, my skills weren't needed. Such was the case when Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach were on. I was all about Elvis, and he was nicer than I expected, even posing for a photo.
I was ready to call it a day, but one of the other collectors told me he'd take a picture of me and Mr. Bacharach. I resisted, but the resulting photo is, I admit, pretty entertaining. At least to me. If Burt Bacharach sees it, he'd probably be less thrilled.
Another memorable music guest was Hank Williams Jr., who, as I recall, wasn't announced as the musical guest until late in the game. I would generally scour TV Guides and newspaper listings in advance so I could prepare accordingly. But when there was no advance warning, especially for someone I was as interested in meeting as Bocephus, well, I went into a panic. I recall that retired journalist Bryan Chambala was coming into town that day, so I hurriedly went to Academy Records and snatched up two Hank Jr. records before meeting Mr. Chambala at the Port Authority. I informed of what we would be doing with the next few hours and he gamely agreed to the mission (a noble action, though if he hadn't, I suspect I would've just bought him a bus ticket home and said farewell).
There was a decent-sized crowd of collectors around that day, though only a few who had any genuine interest in meeting Bocephus. One of them was Ronnie, one of my favorite collectors, who was always well dressed and well stressed about having everything go according to plan. He was a fun guy to talk to, but when it came time to being in charge of taking his photo with a celebrity, I didn't want to be in the area. He would get so revved up about the matter ("Wait 'til he's looking! And make sure I'm looking too! And we're both in the frame!") that I just didn't want the responsibility.
Anyway, as we were all staring at the elevators, waiting for one to release Bocephus, I looked to my right and spotted Hank Jr. coming out of the service elevator. Sneaky! But I quickly darted over, followed closely by Bryan, Ronnie, and the rest of the autograph lunatics, who commenced The Swarm. And, as you may have guessed, I wound up with Ronnie's camera in my hand. After several moments of panic, the picture was taken. I never saw how it came out, but I hope I did Ronnie proud.
I got my two albums signed (with a horrible scrawl), and, I do believe, Mr. Chambala snapped this gem:
And, of course, no discussion of my Conan years would be complete without mentioning what some my call my greatest Holiday Greeting photo, taken on August 14, 2001, before everything changed about a month later. I don't think there was even a split that year. How could there be? How could I deny sending anyone this photo?
So, yeah, even though I don't have any strong emotional ties to Conan O'Brien, it made me a little sad to see him signing off before making the transition to an hour earlier and a coast away. He was indirectly responsible for some of the more entertaining moments in my younger days (and I will forever love his shooting and drinking segment with Hunter S. Thompson and his first interview with James Ellroy, both of which are maddeningly not anywhere I can find on the Internets), so I wish him well on the other coast. Thanks for the memories.