Insanity is the norm for Conan artistic director alum
The urgent email arrived at 10:26 a.m. The moment Christopher Goumas ’90 laid eyes on it, he knew trouble was ahead.
Chris: We need a live donkey wearing a “missile nose cone” by one p.m. It’s for a video gag about those phony missiles the North Koreans were displaying at that military parade the other day.
Goumas eyeballed the email carefully and for a moment, the supervising art director of the hugely popular Conan late-night talk show sat paralyzed in his office chair.
A live donkey?
Wearing a nose cone?
By 1 p.m.?
Ridiculous! Absolutely impossible! And yet it had to be done.
Why the donkey? The writer was calling for a video-taped gag that superstar talk-show host Conan O’Brien could run during his opening monologue on that night’s show. The gag would be built around reports that the North Koreans had faked missiles displayed during a parade.
Conan would introduce the video as follows: “We actually obtained footage of the parade, and I have to agree the missiles aren’t very convincing. Check it out!” The video of the “donkey nose cone” would run, hopefully to laughter from the live studio audience.
But with less than three hours from the show’s first production deadline, Goumas and company had exactly 150 minutes to create the video from scratch.
Goumas got busy in his office at the famed Warner Bros. Stage 15 studio. He flipped through phone numbers for agencies that provide live animals in the world of L.A.-based showbiz. Within 20 minutes, animal trainers were loading a photogenic donkey into a cushioned van for the quick ride to the Warner Bros. lot. So much for the jackass.
Goumas zoomed along a twisting labyrinth of aging props that had been used to make some of the most memorable movies—including A Star Is Born, Ghostbusters and All The President’s Men. He hurried past the giant “tank room” where Warner magicians had assembled The Perfect Storm. (Yes, that entire rain-lashed epic was filmed in a giant tank surrounded by monster-sized fans).
“I need a cardboard-type missile nose cone that a donkey can wear,” he told startled painters, carpenters, and set designers in the studio workshop, “and I’m hoping we can put it together now!”
He huddled with his top aides, all of whom were bending, shaping, and painting a cardboard-and-plastic artifact that perfectly portrayed a donkey-sized missile nose cone decorated with all the vibrant colors of the North Korean flag. By 10 minutes past noon, the cone was on the donkey’s nose and the shoot was underway.
“All we did was attach the ‘missile cone’ to his nose and walk him while we shot the video,” Goumas said. “We got it all done by 1 p.m. and we liked the way it came across. Somehow, we had delivered the goods! The whole thing was a great example of the kind of work I do on the Conan show each day. We call it ‘creative collaboration,’ and that’s what we’re all about.”
By 2 p.m. Conan was rehearsing his monologue in front of an audience of staffers and interns. While the producer tweaked the gags and the technicians lugged lights, Conan paced the sound stage practicing.
At precisely 4:30 p.m., and with a studio audience of about 150 captivated fans, the lights went up and the Conan house musicians lurched into the show’s theme song. After a few warm-up jokes, it was time for the moment of truth: the North Korean missile cone gag.
A giant screen lit up with the video. First a tiny economy car rolled by with a pint-sized “missile” on its roof. Then a single soldier marched into view carrying a six-inch “missile” that he obviously intended to throw at the enemy. And then the donkey finally arrived, marching proudly along with the Goumas-inspired nose cone firmly in place.
The audience loved it. Conan capped the moment with a perfectly timed punch line: “There’s nothing I fear more than the Great Donkey Missile!”
It’s such moments that explain how Goumas has captured national acclaim as art director for some of the biggest names in talk-show television, including David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, and Conan.
After 15 years of pulling together sets and rounding up outlandish costumes for TV idols, Goumas is accustomed to outrageous demands of writers and producers. They think nothing of asking him to create a giant water buffalo or chicken sandwich the size of a Volkswagen within a few hours.
“The thing I love most about this job is the way that no two days are ever alike,” the former ISU set designer said while describing what it takes to create a brand-new TV show four days a week. “But there’s also something wonderful about the collaboration that’s required each day.
“In many ways, I think we’re like circus hands. We come to work each day with the knowledge that we’re going to have to build the show from the ground up. And then we just do it. There’s an old one-liner that I’ve always loved, because of the way it so perfectly describes how truly zany show business can be at times: ‘Hollywood is basically junior high school—except that they have million-dollar budgets!’”
Goumas picked up his knack for creating comedy shows out of thin air during his undergrad days as a wannabe art director at ISU during the late 1980s.
“The great thing about studying theater arts at Illinois State was that the faculty gave you the opportunity to fail,” he said. “They were very helpful and supportive, but they also let you go way out on the edge so you could learn about your talent and also about your limitations.
“Teaching us how to fail properly was a huge gift, and I took full advantage of it. I remember on one occasion I was working on a set for a musical comedy and I somehow managed to nail a piece of Masonite to my leg. It took me several seconds to pry it off. That’s the kind of ‘failure lesson’ you don’t soon forget!”
Goumas was raised in the Chicago suburb of Mount Prospect and landed at ISU in 1985, already dreaming of a theater career. “I’d been very active in theater in high school, and of course I knew all about the great ISU program that had helped to launch Steppenwolf [Theatre Company] and great actors like John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, and Laurie Metcalf during the 1970s.
“That was a terrific program in a lot of ways, but what I liked most was the freedom we were given to develop our skills. At the same time, most of the ISU faculty members were extremely supportive.” He fondly remembers faculty and staff greats such as Al Goldfarb, Denny Mays, and Billy Ruyle. His classmates included such standouts as Billy Clow, Tim Mann, and John Miller, who is still teaching in the college.
“That was a fantastic bunch of teachers and students. They touched my life deeply, to the point where I hope I can teach theater in college myself someday.”
Thanks to a recommendation from ISU Professor Dan Wilhelm, Goumas completed a master’s degree at Brandeis University. He signed on with a New York City company that staged musical shows for corporations. He spent several years learning there before jumping to Letterman’s late-night talk show during the early 1990s.
Having fully mastered the art of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants backstage art direction by 2003, he was firmly ensconced as the art director on the hugely popular Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He captured two Emmys for his work on the show and was nominated four times.
When fast-rising Conan fluttered up from his late-night perch on NBC to inherit Jay Leno’s spot on the fabled Tonight Show in 2009, Conan quickly recruited Goumas to run the backstage operations.
Now married to former William Morris Agency operative Elizabeth (Wessel) ’89, whom he met while she too was an ISU College of Fine Arts undergraduate, Goumas still loves the daily adrenalin rush of his television career. His energy and talent have resulted in legendary skits, such as the life-sized Angry Birds game he created on the Conan stage, which is still posted on YouTube.
Working 10 to 12 hours a day, five days a week, he never tires of facing the manic challenges that go with serving as the art director for one of the most frenetic talk shows in television. He especially enjoys partnering with the legendary Conan.
“As a comedian, he’s incredibly smart. He’s also quite imposing, as a physical presence. A lot of people don’t realize that he’s 6 feet 4 inches, if you include his hair. He’s tall, and he has a very large head,” Goumas said, noting that most of the backstage maestros on the Conan show are similar to the star’s size.
“Maybe you need a giant head,” Goumas contemplates, “in order to meet the insane deadlines we face every day.”
VIDEO: Goumas recalls putting the nail in his leg. His comments are part of a video tribute to ISU’s late scene shop supervisor Denny Mays, who has been remembered with the creation of a scholarship fund. Contributions can be made at IllinoisState.edu/Giving, or by contacting Brian Gawor at (309) 438-7735 or firstname.lastname@example.org.