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Conan O’Brien’s writers report he’s raring to go for Chicago shows


◆ Monday through Thursday

◆ The Chicago Theatre,
175 N. State

◆ Standby tickets available day of show at 30 E. Benton Pl. (between Randolph and Lake). Numbered wristbands distributed to first 100 in line at 10 a.m.

Updated: July 10, 2012 6:06AM

South Side native Deon Cole on his boss: “Him here is like a kid in a candy store.”

“Him” is Conan O’Brien, whose late-night TBS program tapes Monday through Thursday at the Chicago Theatre. Guests include former Second City-ite and “30 Rock” star Jack McBrayer, freshly exited “Saturday Night Live” standout Andy Samberg, big screen big shot Adam Sandler and erstwhile Chicago stand-up T.J. Miller.

“He doesn’t get out that often,” says Cole, a comic who joined O’Brien’s writing staff in 2009, “so when he does, he gives 150 percent.”

A local residency of this magnitude hasn’t happened since 2006, when O’Brien still presided over his post-“Tonight Show” chatfest on NBC and well before his ill-fated and short-lived turn at the “Tonight” helm — from early June 2009 to late January 2010.

Soon thereafter, in the spring of 2010, he and his gang embarked on a multi-city jaunt defiantly dubbed “The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour,” which also stopped at the Chicago Theatre.

When O’Brien’s out of the studio, Cole says, “remote” shoots — whereby the often chair-bound host mingles with locals and visits familiar locales — are among the dramatically coiffed Harvard grad’s favorite road activities.

So how about some particulars for this go-round? Will Coco lead an architectural boat cruise? Practice yoga with Rick Bayless and/or Mayor Emanuel? Pretend to be groped by the grabby-looking bronze likeness of former White Sox great Luis Aparicio at U.S. Cellular Field? No one’s saying, including Cole and his Park Ridge-born colleague Brian Stack. Can’t spoil the fun.

On why O’Brien keeps returning Chicago-ward, Stack — an alumnus of iO Theater and Second City, who grew up in Palatine — says fond memories of leaner years might play a role. During the summer of 1988, at the Victory Gardens Studio on Lincoln, a fresh-faced O’Brien joined forces with his now-celebrated comedy cohorts Bob Odenkirk and Robert Smigel to stage “The Happy, Happy Good Show.” Clips of their mostly panned flop, directed by Mark Nutter (“The Bicycle Men”), were shown onstage during O’Brien’s 2006 visit.

“Last time we were in town, he wanted to go to Potbelly on Lincoln, because it was across the street from where they did that show,” Stack says.“So I think he had a lot of nostalgia for that time. Even though he said the apartment he lived in had no air conditioning. He said one night it was so hot, he almost started crying. But I think you look back on those hungry years with fondness. I know he does.”

Over the decades, apparently, that fondness has grown. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Chicago is a massive media market with scads of current and potential viewers — both traditional and Web. (In the face of anemic TV ratings, TBS execs have begun touting the show’s reportedly healthy online presence.) Proud natives, too, are spread far and wide.

“I think he just [feels] a real connection with the people — comedically and personally,” Stack says of O’Brien’s Chicago affinity. “Because he’s kind of an improv guy himself, I think he connects very much with the spirit of the city and the improv scene there. Our show has always had a kind of collaborative ‘don’t take yourself too seriously’ kind of thing that Chicagoans are known for.”

In Stack’s estimate, that spirit was somewhat tempered while O’Brien steered “Tonight.”

“Nothing against ‘The Tonight Show’ as an institution or anything,” Stack says, “but with an institution comes a lot of baggage. So it always felt like we were sort of like, ‘Can we do this on ‘The Tonight Show’? We never asked that at ‘Late Night.’ We just did what we thought was funny.”

By comparison, their TBS venture “feels a little more loose, maybe a little less character-based. But it’s closer in spirit to ‘Late Night’ than ‘The Tonight Show’ was. To be honest, ‘The Tonight Show’ always felt a little too big. The studio was too big, and the show felt a little too big to a lot of us. Even to Conan, to some extent. So [now] I think you have a little more freedom to play and do what feels right.”

Although Cole was just finding his television footing during the “Tonight” run and wasn’t as aware of any irregularities, he too admits the atmosphere has greatly improved.

“It’s just so carefree, man, and there’s less to worry about. We get to go all-in.”

Their boss, too, is “very, very happy.”

“He’s loose, he’s more himself,” says Cole, who also performs Wednesday with fellow Conan scribes at the Laugh Factory in Lake View.

“He’s back to dealing with impulse and doing what he thinks is funny,” Cole says. “And people go into his world. That’s what makes for great entertainment in comics. You can either do what people expect or you can bring them to your world. I think now he’s back to bringing people to his world.”

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