- Sona Movsesian was an NBC Page and landed her assistant job through an internal recommendation.
- Movsesian says she and Conan have an unusual boss-employee relationship.
- She shares three important lessons she learned about working in Hollywood.
This article is reportedly based on a conversation with Sona Movsesian, Conan O’Brien’s assistant and New York Times bestselling authorThe worst assistant in the world. Edited for length and clarity.
I’ve been Conan O’Brien’s assistant since 2009.
Of course everyone is replaceable and I could be fired tomorrow, but I feel like I’ve made myself indispensable in my job – and thus, I get away with a lot while working for Conan. I’m overstepping the bounds of what a regular assistant should or shouldn’t do. Much.
So, with Conan’s blessing (and preludes), I wrote a book called “The worst assistant in the world,” which is now a New York Times bestseller. There are some very important techniques and tips out there—including how to get a nap at work, how to watch a long movie at your desk without alerting your co-workers, or in general, how to do less As much work as possible.
Could this advice fire you? Well that’s right. maybe. Or your situation might turn out to be like yours, where you could write a book about it instead.
I didn’t always struggle to get things off at work. In fact, when I started, I was quite the opposite – I’ve worked hard at my job, always striving to impress me and go the extra mile. I wanted a job in TV, and I was willing to work hard for it.
When I started working in entertainment there was a whole culture, it was about paying your dues and giving yourself completely to your jobs – compromising who you are and what you want to move forward with, getting a job, or making your boss happy.
I thought this was what I had to do. Until I started working for Conan.
The way I got my job was straightforward
Before I got the job as Conan’s assistant, I was an NBC intern, then I was page. I got a job at NBC after that, and while I was working there, I heard that The Conan Show was moving to Los Angeles. I remember going to the HR department and saying, “Hey, I want to work on The Conan Show.”
I didn’t have a plan for how to be a part of the show. I just knew I wanted to work on it. The human resources department said they will be posting jobs in the fall. I was checking the site every day until the PA post was posted. I applied, and oddly enough, I was brought in for an interview as Conan’s assistant instead.
They had me do a first interview, which was very professional and straightforward, and then I did my second interview with Conan and two of the producers. I think just off the bat, they could see that I was calm under pressure – an important trait of a Hollywood assistant.
Plus, right before our interview, the publicist for “Late Night,” whom I had crossed with on NBC, texted Conan and said “Sona’s a rock star” or something. Now I feel like he should probably apologize to Conan for lying to him about it. But really, I think having an internal certification for me really took me over the edge of being hired.
There is a whole world of personal assistants willing and willing to go the extra mile: they’ll drive to their boss’s house, freshen all the flowers, scatter rose petals around the bathroom, fill the bathtub with lavender…
I feel like Conan might have met some of those while doing the interview, but I was someone who clearly loved television, and I was very familiar with his work, and I think we both felt that was something that could really work.
The relationship that developed later was definitely unexpected from both parts. But I learned some very important lessons from Conan during my 13 years as his assistant.
1. Being professional is not as useful to a comedian as a sense of humor
When I think back to my working relationship with Conan when I was just starting the job, I remember being pretty troubled. Conan was always joking and joking around the office, but there was a very strong mutual professionalism and respect when I first started working.
The breaking point in our professional dynamic was about three months into the job – I was talking to my grandmother on the phone in Armenian one day. When I hung up, Conan said, “What is that?” I told him I was talking to my grandmother – and he said, “Oh, it looked like you were arguing with Dracula.” That was joke number one.
He met my dad once and started making jokes about his mustache. His story was that my father built my brother out of wood because he was the puppet maker of Geppetto.
A year later, he would tell people that I was born on the island of Armenia and that my father was a goat herder. Apparently, there was an attack and my dad put me in a basket and I went to that country where I jumped out of the bush while Conan was walking down the street and thought, “Oh, I’m going to pet this guy and make her my helper.”
It was just rift after rift, after rift.
I think if I hadn’t laughed at the joke he first said about my argument with Dracula, our dynamic would have been a lot different – but when I laughed then and at all the other silly things he said about me afterward, I think he realized I had a sense of humor.
And she admitted that he really appreciates having someone around who he can laugh at and laugh at. We both let the professionalism between us fade away. Now there is nothing left. Conan went from just my boss to my alternate friend and brother – when the dynamic changed, so did my work ethic.
2. Being treated like trash is not a requirement to move higher in Hollywood
Not only did Conan let me be myself early on, he also kicked him out — and made sure his fans did, too.
Being on screen with Conan wasn’t something I necessarily wished for. It was really organic. Conan is good at using the people around him in comedy. So he started petting me in small parts on air. I think the biggest one was One day when I lost my mug, and I wrote a very scathing email to all the staff, which was a complete abuse of that email list—everyone who worked on the show and everyone from the network, all of the executives—everyone. And I was like, “Where’s Kobe?” An hour later, Conan appeared on my desk with a camera crew. From there, it just became a thing.
I think what Conan appreciates about me is that I’m not trying to obstruct the camera. I don’t really change who I am. I have no aspirations to be in front of the camera. I have no hope of becoming the next Conan. I think if this is all over tomorrow and he’s not using me for bits or I’m not on the podcast, I’ll be fine – and I think he likes that from me.
I also think our dynamic is fun to watch. When you put a camera on it, people are like, it can’t be real. And then when they realize it’s real, they’re curious. I think what amazes people is that power is such a complex concept in the dynamics of Conan and I.
He’s the boss – he hired me, he paid me, and in the end he could fire me. But sometimes, I don’t really act like that. I talk to him again. I forget important things. I tend to ignore things that he feels are important. But in the end, Conan knows I’d do anything for him or his family, and that he can trust me.
My job is to make sure Conan has what he needs and is where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be somewhere. I don’t have to have the boss-assistant relationship with him that everyone expects in order to do so. And Conan knows he doesn’t have to treat me like the back of a human centipede to do that either.
3. I don’t need to go “up” to become an assistant. I have everything I want in a job here
I don’t know how I got off the ambition bandwagon, but I’m thankful I did. When I first started, I was like a lot of people. I wanted to control the network. I wanted to work in development, programming, scheduling, or research — I wanted to run the show, and I thought, “I’m going to take over TV.”
Then I saw a lot of people who were in this situation. I wouldn’t say that CEOs don’t like their jobs. I’m sure they do. But I also think they feel like they’re on a perpetual hiatus from chopping. I think they always feel as if people want their jobs, or if a new administration comes along, they will restructure everything and they won’t get their jobs anymore.
None of that was to my liking. I wanted to be happy at work and not feel scared and pressured.
When I got my job on the “Tonight Show,” I loved going to work every week. There are many people who are afraid to go to work on Monday. I never felt like working for Conan. I’m starting to realize how special that is, and how important it is. I work, in my opinion, with the funniest person on TV, and I’m working on a program that I’m most proud of. I realized I don’t need to keep looking for the next thing. I think I’ll be Conan’s helper until he dies – I’ll ride this wave for as long as I can.
A few years ago, I thought it was crazy that I was still an assistant. Most people do not think that a job as an entertainment assistant is a permanent job. There are, of course, people who act as functional assistants, but I’ve never seen myself as that person.
But I work with people I love, Conan asks me my opinions on things, and all I want outside of the job is in the role. I don’t want to go anywhere else.
I don’t know if it was due to a lack of ambition – I guess my ambition just changed to something else.
My old self (in my NBC page days) will look at me and think, Wait – are you still a helper? But then my page looks at me and says, Wait – did you write a book and you finished it? Are you on the New York Times bestseller list? It was never on the vision board. Are you on a podcast? Do you even know what a podcast is?
I wouldn’t have imagined ending up here when I was a page, and that’s a good thing. An open mind has served me well.
If I can inspire one person to quit a job that makes them miserable, I’ll be happy
I think a big part of my luck is because I was able to follow the flow. I had a family, so if I didn’t like a job, I would be honored to leave it and have the financial and emotional support to do so. I know a lot of people aren’t in this situation, and I understand that. But I want to be able to empower people to quit miserable jobs – that’s one of the goals of my book.
I think whether you’re a Hollywood assistant or you work at a local grocery store, everyone just wants to work with the people who treat them with respect, and be compensated properly.
Unfortunately, if you want to work in a competitive industry like television, whether you get it or not, you will be out of luck.
Alternatively, if it doesn’t work, you can read my book for tips and tricks on how to misuse your corporate card without technical embezzlement. Or how to take advantage of your pregnancy at work.
But I really hope people read The World’s Worst Helper and see that there are exceptions to what they think is a rule for this industry, and I hope they start demanding more for themselves.
If you work in Hollywood and would like to share your story, email Eboni Boykin-Patterson at [email protected]
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