Late afternoon with Conan O'Brien

Joannie was in town last week through Thursday for a conference. She got out Thursday afternoon, just in time to join me for lunch at Burger Joint and then a live taping of Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

Burger Joint, in contrast to the fancy surroundings of Le Parker Meridien hotel lobby, is a greasy joint, a literal hole in the wall that seats about 25 people at the most. I'd eaten brunch at Norma's, just across the lobby, and never suspected Burger Joint was there, ensconced behind a curtain, the only indication of its presence being a neon burger sign. The decor consists of a couple random movie posters hung on faux-wood paneling. The place is as simple as its webpage/menu.

I've read that the lines at lunch can be brutal, as at my current favorite burger joint, Shake Shack. Joannie and I were there at about 1:30 in the afternoon and had to wait about fifteen minutes for our burgers and fries. The burger, a bit bigger than a single burger at Shake Shack, is straightforward and quite satisfying. Worth the wait. The fries, which come in a brown paper bag, were not. I'm still partial to the Double Shack Burger at Shake Shack, with its combination of sirloin and brisket, but Burger Joint is a worthy player in the mid-priced burger scene.

The old cliche is true: the camera adds ten pounds. In Conan's case, that's a good thing, because in person he's, in Joannie's words, "weird-looking." On television, the extra ten pounds add a bit of softness to an otherwise angular face. He's also as pale as an albino. On this day, he'd cut himself shaving just before going on air, so he wore a band-aid under his lips the entire show. A good comedian relishes the unanticipated, and in this case the band-aid provided a few minutes worth of jokes that Conan interspersed between pre-planned material.

The camera also adds about ten yards, apparently. It's shocking how cramped the studio (located at 30 Rockefeller Plaza) is in person. It seats about 200 people and consists of two halves. On the left is the curtain from which Conan and guests pop out, in front of which Conan does his monologue. At the near left corner sits the band, the Max Weinberg 7. The right half of the stage is Conan's desk, where he does most of the show. Use some really wide-angle lenses and shoot up close, and a tiny space can look enormous on television. If New Yorkers could only experience their closet-sized apartments through just such a lens, they wouldn't feel so cooped up.

The camera does not make you funnier, but that's not a problem for Conan. He's funny on TV, he's funny in person, and he's funny even when the cameras aren't rolling. After the warm-up comedian did his schtick and just before the taping began at 5:30pm, Conan popped out for a quick routine of his own. He speaks fast, and if and when a joke crashes, he recovers quickly, usually by admitting the joke is bad and using his honesty to draw a laugh, and then moves on before you can dwell on the moment.

His deft comic touch carried this show as the routines were of middling quality. The guests were Kim Cattrall, pushing her new book Kim Cattrall Sexual Intelligence, Seth Meyers of Saturday Night Live, and David Rakoff, author of Don't Get Too Comfortable and sometimes a contributor to This American Life on NPR.