Late Night viewers may not have initially understood Conan O’Brien’s brand of humor, but there was an important demographic who did: college kids. 

In Vanity Fair‘s oral history of Late Night with Conan O’ Brien for the show’s 30th anniversary, its cast and crew detailed how the college demographic ended up inadvertently saving the series from cancellation. 

Months after the show premiered in September 1993, producer Jeff Ross received a call from NBC execs saying the show was in “imminent danger of being canceled.” Greg Kinnear was rumored to take over for O’Brien, as the gamble of hiring an unknown name to host Late Night had seemingly not paid off. However, exec Rick Ludwin convinced NBC to give the show another chance to find its audience. 

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While Late Night with Conan O’Brien received a significant boost from David Letterman’s guest appearance the same year O’Brien made his debut, the show failed to receive much encouragement from the network, with O’Brien recalling Late Night experiencing “at least another year or so of real struggle.” 

In the summer of 1994, things took a turn for the better. The audiences attending tapings were enthusiastic, understanding the show’s off-kilter segments. “I didn’t know what was happening. And then it dawned on me. Colleges let out. So college students started to come,” said O’Brien. Ross added, “People showed up knowing bits. It made us feel like we were onto something. I don’t think the network noticed it, but we noticed it.” 

Before NBC caught on, the network “sent a guy to ride herd on us, and he was really rough on us. He’s telling us, ‘This is all wrong. Don Ohlmeyer sent me here to kick your ass,’” O’Brien said. “And then after he was done reading us the riot act, he went to visit his son at Boston College. He was hanging out in the dorm room and he said, ‘So what do you kids like to watch?’ And all of them said, ‘Oh, we watch Late Night With Conan O’Brien. We really like that show!’ And he had just told us pretty much that we were shit.” 

Five years later, an executive called Ross and O’Brien into his office. “He really didn’t like us in the beginning. Conan and I were like, ‘Ugh. I can’t believe we’re still having to deal with this.’ And he sat us down and he said, ‘Guys, I have to apologize. I was wrong,’” Ross recalled. 

Late Night with Conan O’Brien went on to air until Feb. 20, 2009, proving that Ludwin was right — the right viewers would come and make the show a success. In 2010, O’Brien went on to host his new show Conan on TBS. It ended in 2021. Currently, the former late night host is focused on his podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, which debuted in 2018.

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