This is the first thing I see when I open up my email one Wednesday morning in January: “Hey, you might want to write in and double our chances!” My boyfriend has caught Conan O’Brien fever, a highly contagious affliction that has swept across the GTA. Symptoms include compulsive email checking, fingers permanently crossed for luck and constant complaints of, “Where are my tickets? Where are my tickets? Why the hell don’t I have tickets?” Since then, I have obsessively been checking my email for that congratulatory message offering me the coveted tickets. As of the week of taping I’ve still received no reply.
My boyfriend Mike Paris, however, is much luckier than I. Or rather his mother is. About a week after the first round of Conan-themed emails from him, I receive an instant message: “Keep an eye on your email today. They’re sending out confirmations about Conan,” it continues. “My mom’s got a pair.”
My startled, wide-eyed response: “You’re joking.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Your boyfriend has a date with his mom.”
The hype surrounding the late-night talker’s imminent visit to Toronto has erupted into full-fledged Conan-mania. Four episodes of Late Night with Conan O’Brien are being taped February 10-13 at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. The 1,000-seat venue is five times the size of the show’s regular 200-capacity New York studio, yet tickets are hard to come by. Since the contest was announced in early January, over 50,000 ticket seekers in Canada and the U.S. have requested tickets, prompting NBC to initiate a random ticket lottery to allocate seats to fans. “Eager Conan fans have been emailing and phoning us for weeks,” says Peter Soumalias, the organizer of O’Brien’s visit, in a press release. Each winner is awarded two non-transferable tickets to a show, but you’d never know it looking at the line-up around the theatre for O’Brien’s February 11 appearance.
A line of roughly 300 promotional ticket holders – won from television and radio contests – stretches down Yonge Street. Another line of lucky lottery winners wraps around the side of the building and lines Queen and Victoria Streets. People of all ages stand shivering against the Bank of Montreal building on Queen Street. Each line includes a woman carrying a stuffed dog in a pink dress – wearing a pearl necklace and with a cigarette dangling from its mouth – ready to offer her up to Late Night puppet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. But then a rumour starts to circulate – a few hundred more tickets have been distributed than the theatre can accommodate. Ticket holders will get in but won’t be guaranteed seats, as overflow guests will watch the live show via a closed-circuit television in another room. “We don’t want that,” says Barbara Paris, my boyfriend’s mother, waiting in line on Queen Street, still confident they’ll have seats in the theatre.
Long-time O’Brien fan Andrew Abercrombie, a 25-year-old retail manager from Toronto, entered the draw a month ago. “I’m a big fan of Conan and consistently watch the show,” he says. “I’m proud of Canadians, but Bullard doesn’t hold a candle to Conan.” Unlike Canada’s home-grown late-night host, whose show was recently cancelled due to low ratings, O’Brien’s visit is officially being hailed as a plan to boost the city’s battered reputation after last summer’s SARS crisis.
Despite the huge number of fans and the positive effect this visit may have on the city, there are a few people who would like to see O’Brien pack up and leave town. The federally funded Toronto 03 Alliance and the Ontario Ministry of Tourism collected a combined $1 million in taxpayer dollars to offset the cost of bringing O’Brien and his crew of 100 to Toronto, a sum that NBC reportedly would not cover. O’Brien says that the show is being produced on the cheap and that it is up to Canadians to decide how their tax dollars are spent.
O’Brien’s line-up includes top Canuck talent including Mike Myers, Michael J. Fox and Will & Grace star Eric McCormack as well as musical guests Nickelback and Barenaked Ladies. Apart from the northern stars that made it big in the States, how will this New Yorker be able to show America what Canada is really about? “He’ll probably do some Canadian-themed stuff,” says Abercrombie. “He likes to make fun of Canadians now and again. But I can’t really speculate.” Soumalias also thinks that the shots at Canada will be a big theme in the shows. “I hope they lampoon us the whole time,” he tells The Globe and Mail.
For diehard fans willing to brave the frigid Canadian weather to increase their chances of being part of the studio audience, a small number of standby tickets are held at the theatre entrance each day. But these one-per-customer tickets don’t guarantee admission. Abercrombie likes the odds, but admits missing work isn’t worth the numb fingers. “If I didn’t have to work,” he says, “I would certainly be in line for tickets.”