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Conan O’Brien: The business of comedy

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Conan O’Brien, a 1985 Harvard graduate, is one of the most successful comedians of the past decades. He wrote for classic comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live (SNL) and the Simpsons early on in his career,  and has over 20 years of experience as the comedic host of his own television shows, starting with the Late Night Show (1993-2009) and, briefly, the Tonight Show.

A few years ago, a very public humiliation threatened to ruin all he had worked for. His appointment to the Tonight Show was cut short a mere 7 months into his tenure due to network politics and he found himself unemployed and humiliated. Due to confidentiality and non-compete contracts signed, he couldn’t even talk about the injustice done to him.

Instead of giving up, he took a bad situation and used it to rise from its ashes. He couldn’t perform on television for a while, or post performances on the internet, so he did the only thing he could do – he took his show on the road. He sent out one tweet – one of his very first ones – which directed people to a website where they could purchase the tickets for his comedy tour, and sold out within two hours without any sort of additional publicity.

He took a bad situation, one where his employers had reneged on both public and private commitments made to him and used strategic moves to rally his supporters, taking his continually evolving brand and career to new levels of astounding success. He is now considered to be one of the internet’s biggest brands, with over 1.7 million subscribers on YouTube, and millions of viewers on his new show, simply titled “Conan”.

His comeback teaches us many lessons that we can all learn from. It’s tempting to crawl into a hole when things don’t go your way – say, you’re passed over for that promotion you’ve worked your butt off for, or the new guy seems to be rising up that corporate ladder faster than you – but there are ways unique to your position that you can leverage to achieve success.

In Conan’s parting words on the Tonight Show: “Please do not be cynical. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get but if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

Below are the lesson he’s learnt along the way, and his advice to the graduating Dartmouth class of 2011. Listen, laugh and be inspired.


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