Thousands make it a Late Night with popular host

By Jason Thurlkill

In a town where the biggest celebrities are sports heroes, news anchors, and talk show hosts, thousands of Chicago residents played hooky or called in sick Tuesday to see a taping of Late Night with Conan O’Brien—and some genuine stars, too. A mostly 20-something crowd started showing up at the corner of State Street and Lake Street near the Chicago Theater as early as 9:30 a.m. Fans holding the “Golden Ticket,” an e-mail reservation from NBC, traded e-mails for tickets to see the offbeat, popular late night comedian.

The network, which received over 75,000 ticket requests, over-booked the taping, so even fans with reservations weren’t sure whether they would be admitted to the show. Meanwhile, those who did not land reservations hoped to snag a last-minute spot and waited anxiously in the standby line, which stretched from State Street to Dearborn Street.

Lisa Kim, a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, wore a sign that read: “Conan, if we mated it would be cool!” She hoped her reference to O’Brien’s skit, which morphs two people into one image, would eventually get the attention of Late Night staffers, or even O’Brien himself. “As the week progresses, I’m probably just going to propose to him on this sign,” Kim said.

Beatriz Jara, a restaurant server, and William Houston, an I.T. professional, camped out in folding chairs at 8:30 p.m. Monday night so they could be first in the standby line. Both looked exhausted from spending a night on the street. “People were begging us for change, trying to sell us their poetry,” Jara confessed. Her spirits were high. “Everyone is just hanging out, having a good time.” (Fortunately, Jara and Houston made it inside the theater once staffers admitted the standby line).

Although fans were supposed to be admitted around 3:30 p.m., the line didn’t begin moving until almost 4 p.m. By then, the line of ticketed guests wrapped around State and Lake Streets, up Wabash Avenue, and west on Wacker Drive. Soon, the ornate Chicago Theater—which seats 3,800 guests—was filled near capacity with an eager but impatient audience.

After the restless crowd chanted, “Conan! Conan! Conan!,” warm-up comic Brian McCann joked, “This is way over our heads, and we don’t know what we’re doing.” He said Conan was busy backstage “finishing a bag of coke with some guy named Bob Sirott.” Sirott, WMAQ’s weekend anchor, interviewed O’Brien in New York City before he came to Chicago.

Bandleader Max Weinberg, with the Max Weinberg Seven, then burst onto the band podium and treated the audience to several minutes of jazz.

As O’Brien strutted out onto the massive stage, the crowd leaped to their feet and greeted the Late Night star with a three-minute standing ovation. For a few moments, O’Brien looked like Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch, jumping up and down in front of the stage amid the crowd’s manic applause and screams.

O’Brien’s opening monologue included jokes about “getting to act like a jackass in the Central Time zone” and the Cubs being the “best team in Wrigleyville.” Although O’Brien promised a “classy” show, he got a visit from the Masturbating Bear, who skydived into the Loop. A segment with Mr. T, who grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, took O’Brien to the South Side, where he howled at women passing by; to the Chicago River, where he canoed; and to the Sears Tower, where he skipped.

“I particularly enjoyed the cameo by Mr. T and his appearance in that crazy flag outfit,” said Kylie Kortlang, a second-year master’s student in the Harris School.

In a bit called “Chicago Small Talk Moments,” O’Brien and Weinberg read off cue cards to exchange banter about Congressman Luis Gutierrez’s recent criticisms of Mayor Daley.

After O’Brien spun the “Wheel of Wendt,” George Wendt—otherwise known as the lovable, pudgy Norm from Cheers—had to do one push-up.

Glen Ellyn native and Will & Grace sidekick Sean Hayes surprised audience members when he “flew” onto the set. Before he won acclaim for being “Just Jack,” Hayes said he received no respect when he played keyboard for local band Sounds from the Stairs.

During the commercial break, musical guest Cheap Trick—who happens to be from Rockford, Illinois—performed “Surrender,” hurling candy and a record into the audience. That didn’t stop some audience members from losing interest. Some guests tried to exit the theater before the band finished, but attendants wouldn’t let anyone leave early.

Wrigleyville resident Andria Fekken’s misfortune of getting the seat furthest from O’Brien turned out to be serendipitous. After O’Brien singled her out for having the worst seat in the theater at the beginning of the show, she joined him on stage at the end.

Trupti Patel, another second-year master’s student in the Harris School, said O’Brien was “pretty funny.”

“What you see is what you get…I’m not starstruck or anything, so I was pretty indifferent about the whole event,” he said.

Kortlang, who previously caught a taping of the show in New York, was more upbeat. “Here we had a great venue and tons of screaming fans. What more could you ask for?”

O’Brien’s run in Chicago ends Friday night, with Senator Barack Obama and Wilco as his guests. Let’s hope the senator doesn’t have to shake hands with the Masturbating Bear or do too many push-ups.