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A Decade of Late-Night Laughs with Conan O'Brien

Conan O'Brien will mark 10 years on the air this week with a prime-time special. But a decade ago, the chance of that seemed small. In 1993, producer Lorne Michaels had unexpectedly picked O'Brien above a dozen better-known names to take David Letterman's Late Night slot on NBC, after Letterman left for CBS.

"When the curtains parted on that first broadcast, viewers saw a tall 30-year-old man with a Woody Woodpecker pompadour and a case of self-doubt," says NPR's Scott Simon. "Today, Mr. O'Brien is approaching the mid-point of a four-year contract."

O'Brien reportedly gets paid $8 million a year -- not bad for someone who was roundly criticized when the show was launched, and had to sign a series of 13-week contracts until the network made a more solid commitment to keep him on.

"I was not a seasoned performer," O'Brien says. "I did not have one-one hundredth of the ability in front of a TV camera in September of '93 that I have now."

But O'Brien says that if anything, he is a survivor. "I've always thought that I'm a little like the Clint Eastwood character in those Westerns where it begins with beating the crap out of Clint Eastwood and whipping him and hanging him -- but they forget to kill him. And they all laugh, and get on their hoses and ride off chuckling, and then he eventually recovers and shows up on edge of town and kills everybody."

O'Brien went to Harvard, and says his idol while there was not John F. Kennedy or John Updike, but Bob Hope. O'Brien was president of the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine -- like Robert Benchley, George Plimpton and John Updike before him.

After Harvard, he wrote for HBO's Not Necessarily the News, Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. On his own show, his absurdist streak gets to run wild.

O'Brien says he wants to do his show as long as he is able. But he takes any compliment he earns for outlasting his critics with a big grain of salt:

"No matter what I accomplish, they'll be bringing up those early tough times," he says. "If a giant meteor was headed towards Earth, and I quickly constructed a rocket ship and flew out there and deflected the meteor, saving the Earth from certain destruction, the headline would be: 'O'Brien Saves Earth, After Rocky Start.'"

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.