Bringing some laughs to the Lumière stage at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity today, Conan O’Brien and Shaquille O’Neal talked about comedy, their brands and the relationship they have to their audiences. Just don’t ask Shaq to stump for Spam.
Basketball legend O’Neal, who co-hosts TNT’s Inside The NBA, described his brand as “70% humor, 10% to inspire” and the rest to the products he’s selling while being as “authentic as possible.” He called himself a “real model” as opposed to a “role model” when the conversation took a turn towards the canned meat Spam (a reference to O’Brien’s freckles) and O’Neal said by way of example that he’d never be associated with the brand because he couldn’t “play” a part. When he was young, he “used to eat so much it was coming out of my face. They could write me a check for $10M, but I’d give it back.”
O’Brien spoke to his own particular brand of comedy. “I got started a long time ago and had a great education. I was left alone on my late night show to experiment, learning a lot of comedic principles and how to craft something that will last for a while.” A lot of comedy now, he said, “has a half-life that’s just about the news today. I’m passionate about making things that are still going to be funny 15 years from now.”
Social media now plays a big part in O’Brien’s comedy and he said he was “thrust” into that world as part of his “reincarnation from NBC host to Turner host” and that it “kept me alive.” When working with brands, O’Brien wants to “have my cake and eat it too. I want it to be funny without it being an ad… If we are going to make money at the expense of our fans, it’s going to hurt us badly.”
And he’s embracing change. “I accept that this is happening. It’s not ‘Oh my God, linear is dying.’ I refuse to be afraid of this technology. I want to try it all and keep taking the show places.”
O’Brien discussed his show’s remote shoots in such places as Haiti, Italy and elsewhere. “It’s much more agile than the old show. Trump made his comments about Haiti and African countries and three days later we were in Haiti. We wanted to give Haitians a voice, but we didn’t want it to be overly political.”
He continued, “The late night TV I grew up with wasn’t a conversation. If you can get out in the world and use social media to its full extent you can have a dialogue. I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’m more excited now about the work I’m doing than I’ve ever been.”
He said being the butt of the joke as an American abroad is akin to being a “goodwill ambassador.” While that “can sound hifalutin’, it’s also my favorite kind of comedy.”