Conan O’Brien’s late-night show turned into a late-nightmare on Thursday when his one and only scheduled guest, Kumail Nanjiani, canceled on him 30 minutes before start time.
“Historically, whenever things start to go off the rails, I get oddly calm and a little excited because it’s like a snow day when you’re a kid,” the host told The Times on Friday. “It’s that same feeling of, there’s a crazy storm that hit, and the grown-ups aren’t in charge anymore.”
O’Brien was getting ready in his makeup chair when executive producer Jeff Ross broke the news that Nanjiani couldn’t make it to the studio due to unforeseen production conflicts while shooting the final season of “Silicon Valley.” Despite the mix-up being one of the most significant hiccups in his show’s history, O’Brien was hardly fazed.
His team immediately began brainstorming potential pinch hitters — including “Veep” star Sam Richardson — to fill the guest slot. But O’Brien had another idea: Instead of booking another celebrity, he decided to interview his assistant, Sona Movsesian, after an eight-minute opening monologue poking fun at the “Stuber” star for standing him up.
“[W]e’re now a show that has one guest a night,” O’Brien said during his opener, referring to the show’s recent transition to a half-hour long.
“When we were an hour, we would just take the second guest and move them up, and they’d be the first guest, and no one would really be the wiser. But when you’re a show that’s based on just interviewing one guest, and that guest doesn’t show up, you’re really screwed.”
To fill some more time, the comedian also aired a clip from Disney’s summer tentpole “The Lion King,” which opens next Friday, in a sarcastic effort to sabotage the success of “Stuber,” which Nanjiani had been coming on to promote.
“There was nothing on cards; there was nothing written,” O’Brien said. “The only thing we knew was that we were going to end up showing the clip of ‘The Lion King,’ and I would say the rest was pretty much improvised.”
Nanjiani shared and responded to the segment Friday morning on Twitter, confessing his embarrassment.
“Conan O’Brien is my comedy hero,” the actor wrote. “This clip is something I would love if it was about anybody other than me. But it’s about me, so I’m truly mortified.”
O’Brien said he also received an immediate apology text from Nanjiani, but made sure to let the actor know the incident wasn’t his fault.
“We’re doing a podcast together, so maybe he’ll bring me some chocolates,” O’Brien joked. “He is a lovely guy and the last person in the world who would ever blow off an engagement or anything like that. It was just out of his control.”
The show has had success embracing disaster in the past.
O’Brien recalled the candid chaos that ensued when a fire required the studio to shut down during the program’s earlier days. Instead of canceling, the team brought the set outside, and O’Brien and guest Samuel L. Jackson traded the classic talk show sofa setup for a pair of massage chairs.
“If the context is real and honest and compelling, then these things suddenly take on a life of their own,” O’Brien said. “I have noticed over the years that I often get the biggest laughs from things that don’t work.”