It was the fall of 2018, and like many high school juniors who end up at Penn, I was working overtime to build up my resume. The college application process is rigorous, stressful, and in many ways isolating. At my competitive, high–achieving public school, even though we were a year away from having to actually write an essay, my peers were already standoffish and anxious. In a way I was lucky—to some extent I could avoid the cutthroat atmosphere as my extracurriculars were mostly performing arts based rather than academic. But at the same time, most of my closest friends were a year older than me, already done with applications and dreaming of early decisions. I was on a different wavelength—stressed, stuck in the taxing moment, and although I was constantly surrounded by people as I bounced from activity to activity, lonely.
The word “bounced” incorrectly implies that I could get from here to there quickly without losing any time. In reality, one day a week, I spent hours driving every day—hours of crucial productivity lost. I grew to hate my commute through various Cleveland suburbs to get to voice lessons or to temple. As I drove, I cycled through the 1,214 songs on an old iPod Nano until I couldn’t listen to them anymore.
One day, I swapped my driving playlist for an episode of the podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. Truthfully, I don’t recall how I stumbled upon it, but I remember that I was interested in the episode because it featured Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally. A devout Parks and Recreation and Will & Grace fan, I of course had to listen to anything the power couple was involved in. It was a pretty funny episode—the unabashedly sexual husband and wife were a hysterical contrast with the reserved O’Brien. It was certainly better than listening to monotonous Cher songs as I passed the same street signs once again. The guest list looked engaging, so I kept listening over the next few weeks. It wasn’t until I realized that I was refreshing each week, awaiting a new episode, that I realized how hooked I was on the podcast.
Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend is hosted by Conan, and he is joined by his assistant Sona Movsesian and producer Matt Gourley each week as he interviews guests that he’s met and wants to become friends with or is friends with already. The banter between Conan and his crew is natural and engaging as they try to antagonize each other, and the experienced talk show host is clearly grateful for the more relaxed environment that allows him to truly get to know celebrities—some of whom he’s interviewed for years under the time constraints of television.
At first, I didn’t know enough about comedy to even understand Conan’s achievements or references in conversation. But as I continued to engage in the comedy community, I grew to recognize some of my same personality traits mirrored in Conan and his comedian guests. Many comedians have commented on a sort of intrinsic motivation to perform, or a desire to get big laughs that borders on obsession. This natural drive—a combination of neuroses, intensity, and work ethic—has allowed a large group of talented comedians to achieve their wildest dreams: performing on the biggest stage or producing their own show.
It has also led numbers of them to bite off more than they could chew, taking on too many projects to find enjoyment in them. But at the end of the day, laughter is a tonic, and they got through it. Finding myself identifying with this mindset as I powered through my schedule, I explored comedy, and found a world of people with whom I could relate.
I was lucky in how quickly Conan became a role model to me. When I got a B in a class, and my perfectionist side was feeling nothing but shame, I was able to pause, reflect on the fact that setbacks hadn’t stopped Conan in his career, and move on. When I felt out of place studying for a physics exam at a show choir competition, I’d think of Conan’s stories of being the “dry” member of the writing staff at the Harvard Lampoon, and know that my hard work wasn’t a bad thing. When, the next summer, I started a biomedical engineering internship at a hospital downtown—an even further daily drive—even though I felt intimidated by the genius researchers I was working under, I could relate to Conan’s experience entering the writer’s room at SNL. These moments can be scary at first, but each served as a stepping stone.
At the end of the day, I’d recommend the podcast to anyone. You don’t need to see Conan as a role model or relate to neuroticism to appreciate that it’s terrifically hilarious and full of entertaining stories. Moments from early episodes stand out to me as being especially memorable: Dana Carvey’s impersonations of the Beatles, David Sedaris and Conan comparing colonoscopies, uncharacteristically serious musings on grief from Stephen Colbert, or just Bill Burr being Bill Burr. The strong humor and familiarity that the show generates is key to why it means so much to me.
The title of the podcast states that it’s Conan who needs a friend, but in those moments, isolated by my own attitude, I was the person who needed one the most. I didn’t realize how much my life was missing that same relaxed conversation that Conan and his guests were appreciative of having. Listening in on Conan, Sona, and Matt’s conversations, it was as if during my long drives each week, I had a break to spend time with a group of witty, mature, and happy people. No matter how long the day had been, or how nervous I was for a grade to come out, I could always rely on these three, my “friends,” to take cracks at each other in a lovingly predictable way. I could count on them to make me laugh—the way old friends can always do.
Due to the pandemic I don’t drive much these days, but I make sure to listen to the podcast during workouts. I work harder at being social, and have already gotten to know some amazing Penn students online. But until I can get on campus and make some friends in person, I’ll remain grateful to be able to depend on a new episode of Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend each and every week.