gallery Drawing Conan
Conan may seem cartoonish, but according to caricaturist John Kascht—who drew the star over the course of two years—there’s more to him than an orange pompadour. Plus, a visual study of Conan O’Brien in print, sculpture—and Cheetos.
In caricature, you look for dominant features. Conan’s eyes, ears, nose and mouth are each distinctive, but they don’t stand a chance at prominence on this melon. The monumental head itself is his dominant feature.
Conan’s head is a hodgepodge of strong overlapping shapes; a cranial clown-car in which everything competes for the same space.
Rendering Conan in clay was actually simpler than drawing him, since his features are so sculptural. The massive outcropping of hair, cantilevered brow, chiseled cheekbones, the ledge of chin and jaw--his face is practically geologic.
That Conan’s face is all angles is perfectly emblematic of a personality and a comic style that celebrates the incongruous.
The first thing that hit me about Conan was his imposing physical presence. 6’4” with five inches of hair on top. He’s a giraffe! Other than his height, Conan also has distinctive freckles on his face that continue down his neck, getting bigger until they disappear under his collar. He calls to mind other animals too.
What you think of Conan is unavoidably colored by the monkey business at the
Tonight Show. Depending on your point of view, he stumbled there—or he was screwed over. Whatever the case, it’s ironic that Conan’s departure from the Tonight Show has made him a star of the new media formats that are replacing the old. Steve Allen and the pioneers of early TV thrived in a similar moment.
Any face can be simplified graphically—but Conan’s is among very few that are truly iconic. Reduced to almost nothing—an orange swoosh atop a pale block—his features remain instantly recognizable. Being born with distinctive features is just dumb luck, but somewhere along the way, Conan recognized their marketing potential. The distinctive hair became his logo, and his complexion (orange on white) became the official colors of brand CoCo. It’s the rare person—Bob Hope and Groucho Marx come to mind—whose visage is its own advertisement.
In many ways, Conan harkens to another era, when comedians cultivated a trademark look and the look itself was their comedy. Conan’s use of his distinctive appearance as a comic prop places him in a tradition of physical comedy that stretches back to vaudeville and silent film. The orange pompadour and gangly body are his version of Chaplin’s hat and baggy pants or Groucho’s moustache and cigar. Every night, Conan deadpans and pantomimes like an old-time comic. It’s dumb enough to satisfy even the most shallow demands of television entertainment, but there’s art in how earnestly he commits to it. Conan is considered a hipster, yet so much about him is just plain old-fashioned. Even his embrace of technology and social media is old school, motivated by what has driven entertainers for as long as there has been a stage. He wants to connect with his audience. He told me, lapsing into an old-timey voice with a pantomimed cigar in the corner of his mouth: "Every night it’s ‘let’s put on a show!’” At his core, Conan is a traditional showman, but one who understands that the show plays out on an infinite number of stages these days—and some of them still being invented even as the show goes on.
Conan inhabits his body in a way that’s both easy and stiff at the same time. He embodies contradictions. He’s simultaneously weird-looking and handsome, silly and smart, cool and geeky, traditional and innovative. His ability to bridge contradictions might explain why he actually appears to be having fun at a time when everything in broadcasting is in a state of flux.