Gary Gulman, Taylor Tomlinson, Ron Funches on Conan.

Thirty Great Stand-Up Sets To Celebrate Conan O’Brien’s Hosting Debut Thirty Years Ago

When Conan O’Brien debuted his version of Late Night, it was a wild and raucous experience that saw everything from John Goodman leg-wrestling to Halle Berry playfully flirting with the host during an early stage of his “awkward romantic nerd” schtick. The bits Conan did, from the faux-future predicting In the Year 2000 to wild characters like Preparation H Raymond, made it clear that the show prioritized comedy by original, odd comedy minds. This applied to stand-up as well, as booker JP Buck scoured the scene for interesting and original voices with something to say. Tuning in to see a Conan set didn’t mean your entire family loved it, but it did mean that if you valued originality and inventive language, you’d find someone new to obsess over. In honor of Conan’s television debut this month, here are thirty classic sets from Late night history. 

Gary Gulman

When Gary Gulman did a set on how the states got their abbreviations, it became a classic set almost overnight. Gulman not only manages to wrangle an otherwise boring topic into something exhilarating and hilarious, but he shows with his set how good his timing is. To this day, it might be the best paced set the show’s ever seen.

Moses Storm

Moses Storm may be best known for his Team Coco produced HBO special, Trash White, but he got his start on Conan with anecdotal comedy about growing up as part of an extremely religious family. Even in a short set, you can sense how meticulous and careful Storm is with his language and pacing, and how those qualities make him a driving mind in the current generation of stand-up.

Ron Funches

Though his stand-up has changed slightly over the years, to see Ron Funches live is to see someone who truly loves every second of being on stage, and is ready to deliver the greatest comedy possible to everyone who showed up to see him. In his Conan set, Funches delivers extraordinary joy in just a few hilarious minutes.

Rachel Feinstein

One of the aspects of a Conan set that gets overlooked is how thoughtfully club comics were booked. For all of the hundreds that wouldn’t work for O’Brien and co’s sensibility, there were occasionally comics who dialed into the weird and astute linguistic frequency needed to crush. Rachel Feinstein is an effortless match between the two worlds, both unafraid to be bold and brash, and utilizing voices and incredible phrasing to stand out and fit in with the weirder vibe of the show.

Nore Davis

In the 2010s, Conan sets began to include comics who were good at taking the temperature of culture. Here, Nore Davis, one of the hardest working stand-ups alive, discusses wokeness, toxic masculinity, straight guy thinking, hip-hop misogyny, and student loans with such smooth transitions and perfect timing that it’s awe-inspiring. In his few minutes, Davis makes the stage his own and wins over the crowd like they’ve been fans for years.

Taylor Tomlinson

Taylor Tomlinson is a great stand-up currently, but it’s easy to forget that she was always good. Here, the DNA of that greatness (work ethic, drive to find the perfect way to have the joke lock into place, animated expressions) is on full display.

Dulce Sloan

All stand-up performed on a Conan-hosted show has been undeniably unique and funny, but rarely has a comic been so simply undeniable in their set. Dulce Sloan is a comic that commands your attention like lightning, and runs through jokes effortlessly like a great band moves through its hits. Watching her set, it’s clear she has nothing to prove, but rather something to remind you of.

Beth Stelling

Funny, acerbic, and sarcastic, Beth Stelling's set is a fierce display of someone that burned bright from the start of their professional career. In a class of comics filled with standouts, Stelling stands out for her wicked humor and ability to land both absurd bits and spikier lines. Stelling is talented enough to catch Conan’s attention beyond the limits of his show, as he produced her highly regarded HBO special, Girl Daddy.

RELATED: Purchase Beth Stelling's comedy album, Girl Daddy, on 800 Pound Gorilla!

Tig Notaro

Getting to see a Conan set meant getting to see a comic have free reign to be as purely themselves as possible. In this set, Tig Notaro, a comic who often gets overlooked for her goofiness, moves a stool across stage over and over again, producing a funny and annoying sound that never gets old, tired, or less funny.

Nikki Glaser

Similar to the crossover appeal of Rachel Feinstein, Glaser is a club act who came up situated between the alt and club worlds of stand-up. A lifelong fan of Conan’s, Nikki Glaser’s unbridled excitement and getting to perform on that stage is contagious, and her comedy hits because of her careful punchlines, edgy setups, and an incredible unassailability that makes the set buoyant enough to take any quiet moments.

Pete Holmes

Conan took such a liking to Pete Holmes that he went on to produce and be a guest on the stand-up’s talk show. Here, the silliness and go-for-broke pursuit of laughs is on full display in a set that mixes alt absurdity with club-comic chops.

RELATED: Purchase Pete Holmes' comedy album, Dirty Clean, on vinyl & digital download on 800 Pound Gorilla!

Vir Das

In his Conan set, Vir Das constantly puts himself in uncomfortable situations and wins the audience back over. A true club comic, he showcases an uncanny ability to flit between insulting the audience and getting them to laugh wildly. Conan hasn’t featured many comics like Vir Das over the years, but it was always exciting when he did.

RELATED: Stream & download Vir Das' comedy album, Abroad Understanding, on 800 Pound Gorilla!

Jon Dore & Rory Scovel

A set like no other that perfectly illustrated what made Conan the preferred show for comedy fans, the premise is simple: Jon Dore and Rory Scovel got double-booked. Rather than cede their time to the other comic, they perform their acts at the exact same time, and create an unforgettable moment in Conan stand-up history in the process.

RELATED: Stream & download Rory Scovel's special, Live Without Fear, on 800 Pound Gorilla!

Marina Franklin

Every so often, a Conan set wouldn’t just introduce a new, emerging talent, but try to help make the case for one that’s already been at the craft for years. Marina Franklin is a comic that remains overlooked and underrated, but in this set, she manages everything from hard punchlines to the speed of her setups with finesse, showcasing what makes her someone all but impossible to follow.

Dina Hashem

It can seem like Anthony Jeselnik has the market for dark one-liners cornered, but Dina Hashem is proof that isn’t true. Hashem kills in her set here, both because of her sharp joke writing, but also because of her interesting delivery. Not only does she deliver each joke in a quiet, near-laconic voice, but there’s a casualness to her punchlines, which are delivered at times in a half-question, half-explanation tone that makes them sting that much harder.

Marc Maron

It’s hard to articulate what exactly made Marc Maron such a great fit for a Conan set, but something in his acidity and trenchant wit seemed to take the temperature of a part of the Conan DNA in a perfect way. Maron may not have set the tone for comedy on Late Night, but he certainly expanded its palette.

RELATED: Stream & download Marc Maron's comedy albums Too Real & More Later on 800 Pound Gorilla!

Laura Kightlinger

In some ways, Laura Kightlinger was a quintessential 90s alt comedian. She had dark, and at times absurd, one liners, but they were paced and paused in a way we don’t see much anymore. Kightlinger made multiple appearances on Conan’s stage, and each time she paced and stood as if it was her own.

Solomon Georgio

Fierce, cutting, and undeniably funny, Solomon Georgio’s set about Disney and colonization managed to move a lot of smart, clever parts to give the world a set that not only made it clear what Georgio’s sensibility is, but to announce the arrival of a genuine talent on the national stage. 

Maria Bamford

The comedic voice of her generation, Maria Bamford is in rare form here as she introduces the audience before her to the wild world of her impressions, which are layered with absurdity and perfect jokes. Bamford tackles everything from religion to celebrity culture in under five minutes, and doesn’t miss an opportunity to wring comedy out of every second.

Norm Macdonald

When Norm Macdonald did stand-up, it was an experience akin to watching a football game: fast-paced, action-packed, and requiring great attention. In this set, Macdonald’s loopy, “rambling” genius is on full display.

Wanda Sykes

Conan has had just about every major comedian working today showcase material on his stage. Here, watching Wanda Sykes is a bit like a time machine. You see her being hilarious over twenty years ago, and get to appreciate how she hasn’t lost a step.

Patrice O'Neal

Comedy had a major loss when Patrice O’Neal died, and you can see why in this set. In the span of a few minutes, O’Neal goes from being nervous and uncertain of himself to absolutely crushing with joke after joke. The slack he gives himself to walk from one point to another is astonishing, and the tightrope of bombing versus crushing has never been better illustrated on television.

Jordan Temple

The pace at which Jordan Temple moves confidently here through joke after joke is impressive enough, but the way he wins the audience back when jokes don’t crush hard enough for his liking is what makes this set a must watch. Conan sets were always great opportunities to see comics wrestle with the audience, but here Temple manages to keep everything moving, and if one joke is a bit off, there’s one right behind it that will blow the room out.

Emily Heller

Sharp, elegant, and slyly political, Emily Heller is working at a level that makes it clear she’s the smartest funny person in the room in the best way possible. Her set here is a brilliant class in confidence, as Heller just delivers killer joke after killer joke at a relaxed pace. Strident cultural commentary forms the shell, but the inner workings of each bit reveal just how brilliant her stand-up is.

Emmy Blotnick

There’s a brilliant marriage of underdog identity, great observations, and an ability to craft incredible comedy lines in the work of Emmy Blotnick. She’s a great comic to watch on Conan, as she’s both being herself and making jokes, while at the same time delivering takes on culture and depression. To watch Emmy Blotnick is to see the old and the new world of comedy meld perfectly, and to see a joke craftsperson working from the top of their intelligence.

RELATED: Stream & download Emmy Blotnick's comedy album, Party Nights, on 800 Pound Gorilla!

Hari Kondabolu

Hari Kondabolu’s a great match for the Conan audience, as he’s able to both showcase his sensibility while playing to them. Here, he manages to make heady topics and thoughts accessible, rooting them in experience and creating a universal way for everyone to connect with his jokes. In just about every stand-up appearance Kondabolu has had since, he never forgets to think about his audience and shift accordingly.

RELATED: Stream & download Hari Kondabolu's special, Vacation Baby, on 800 Pound Gorilla!

Aparna Nancherla

Every so often, a comedian would emerge that felt like a perfect match for Conan’s stage. Here, Aparna Nancherla both matches the frequency of the audience and manages to kill by just being herself. It’s a joy to hear Nancherla’s kooky, clever jokes about life and depression, but it’s downright incredible to see someone who knows no other way but to tell jokes in their own way succeed.

Roy Wood Jr.

At times, it feels like Roy Wood Jr. is on another level with his comedy, providing consistent masterclasses in how to work an audience. Argument- based and eager to anticipate an audience’s concerns or questions, the comic is in great form in this set, which introduces Wood Jr and leaves you wanting more immediately. Almost a decade later, he’s only gotten better. 

Joel Kim Booster

In his first set for Conan, all of the hallmarks of Joel Kim Booster’s comedy are present: weird asides, mock exasperation, identity commentary, and an ability to move a great joke through various moods. One of the gifts of stand-up was getting to see comics evolve from one set to the next, so if you love this, watch Booster’s 2017 set, which shows him as the fully-formed version of himself he is now.

Kumail Nanjiani

Though he’s known for playing a superhero now, Kumail Nanjiani spent time in the trenches of the New York and LA stand-up scenes. In his Conan set, he proves to be the perfect comic for the show, tackling interesting and specific topics with enthusiasm, pacing his punchlines well, and having the panache to fit in interesting language without coming across as being arch or ironic. There’s a quasi-exasperated element to his voicing, which send all of his jokes soaring to the rafters, killing.

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