What It Feels Like To Become Conan O’Briens’ Band Leader (Almost)


The Story

In the July of 1993 I was reading Esquire’s feature article on Conan O’Brien’s remarkable transition from Simpson’s writer to host of the NBC late night slot, replacing David Letterman.

The lead photo featured Conan in Times Square wearing a sandwich board inscribed with the following text: “You don’t know me but my name is Conan O’Brien and NBC just gave me their late night slot. I’m okay for clothes as the network just bought me three suits but I am looking for an apartment and a bandleader”.

Well I was a bandleader whose band had just finished a season on a network talk show in Canada on the CBC. I had heard that NBC was looking for a band and had submitted our tape six weeks earlier.

I showed the Esquire story to my wife who suggested that if men in Esquire were dressing in sandwich boards, perhaps I should too. The next day a photo shoot was arranged in downtown Montreal. Dressed simply in running shorts with no shirt, my sandwich board gave the distinct impression that I was completely naked. It read: “My name is Matt Zimbel and you don’t know me. I have a band called “The House” and we need your help. We just finished a season on CBC TV in Canada as the band on a talk show but we’d like to move to New York. We’re on hiatus so the network just took back my three suits. Thanks for listening.”

After numerous futile attempts to speak to the producer responsible for the band file, an assistant at NBC who made it her life’s work to insure I never came in direct contact with the producer I sought, told me that the producer I had been chasing was no longer on the file and that the new producer was named Jeff Ross, before she slammed down the phone in a huff.

Somewhat stunned I phoned Jeff Ross, who had not yet erected a secretarial defense system – I got right through. Jeff was polite, but reserved and told me that he had a cardboard box in his office with 600 tapes and he would get back to me. I told him that we had been the band on a Canadian show, and suddenly he warmed. “I was up to see a couple of shows, you guys are amazing…we need to talk.” And so the dance began. Suddenly we went from a box of 600 to a list of ten and then to a short list of five. We got a creative briefing – “a 1950’s tv style band” was what they were seeking…nothing at all like what we had been doing.

Nonetheless discussions continued until a week later we were warmly informed that we had been cut.

I told this to a friend and she advised me to record a demo in the style of their creative brief. Of course! why didn’t I think of that? I called our contact back and asked to resubmit using their creative brief as a guideline. I was told they would welcome that but the tape had to be in their office in three days. It was a holiday weekend, I was on the road with my two young sons. We had not one piece of music written and nothing recorded.

To work we went, my co-leader and writing partner Doug Wilde and I wrote five pieces, hired a large band and recorded an audition .The evening after the session I flew to New York to meet with the producers. We got back on the list. And now we were three, Max Wienberg, the Lounge Lizards and us.

Back in Canada, new producers had been engaged for the Canadian show and in a season two remake we had been fired.

With a decision from NBC just days away I needed to leak the information that we were on the short list, for if we were not chosen, there would be no PR value whatsoever in having been on such a prestigious list. I called a journalist friend and asked how one “makes a leak”. “No problem”, she said and she called another journalist to inquire as to whether he had heard the rumor of our potential Conan assignment. As luck would have it this journalist was to be interviewing me that day for a story on a show I was hosting. At the conclusion of the interview he asked me if there was any substance to the rumor of the potential gig with O’Brien. “I’m sorry”, I said, “I can’t discuss that”. Being a journalist, he then called NBC who confirmed.

As dreams of a penthouse apartment in Manhattan danced in my head, the Canadian papers ran large with the story and I awaited a life changing phone call from New York. The call came, “Conan loved Max from his Springsteen days… Max got the gig”. I put my imaginary Manhattan co-op op up for sale, turning a hefty imaginary profit.

Years later, I was in the cafeteria at the CBC when I was approached by a gentleman who introduced himself as a producer with Conan, “Excuse me, are you Matt Zimbel?” (though I was fully clothed at the time he had recognized me from my sandwich board photo) “man you got so close to getting that gig.”

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Matt Zimbel

Matt Zimbel


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