- Sona Movsesian was an NBC page and got 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 story is based on a conversation with Sona Movsesian, Conan O’Brien’s assistant and author of the New York Times bestseller “The World’s Worst Assistant.” It has been 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 – which is why I get away with a lot when I work for Conan. I’m pushing the boundaries of what a normal assistant should or shouldn’t do. A lot.
So with Conan’s blessing (and his foreword), I wrote a book called “The World’s Worst Assistant,” which is now a New York Times bestseller. There are some very important techniques and advice in there, including how to take a nap at work, how to watch a feature film at your desk without warning your co-workers, or just in general how to do as little work as possible. can do.
Could this advice lead to you being fired? Well. It could be. Or your situation could turn out like mine, which you could write a book about instead.
I didn’t always strive to get away with things at work. In fact, when I started, I was quite the opposite – I worked very hard in my jobs, always striving to impress and go above and beyond. I wanted a career in television and I was willing to work very hard for it.
There was a whole culture when I started in the entertainment business, it was all about paying your dues and giving yourself completely to your jobs – compromising who you are and what you want to achieve, 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 pretty easy
Before I got the job as an assistant to Conan, I was an intern at NBC, and then I was a page. Then I got a job at NBC and while I was working there I heard that Conan’s show was moving to LA. I remember going to HR and saying, “Hey, I want to work on Conan’s show.”
I had no plan for how I was going to be part of the show. I just knew I wanted to work on it. The HR department said they would post job openings in the fall. I checked the website every day until a PA job was posted. I applied and was surprisingly brought in as Conan’s assistant.
They let me do a first interview, which was quite professional and straightforward, and then I had my second interview with Conan and two of the producers. I think they could see right away that I was cool under pressure—an important quality for a Hollywood assistant.
Plus, right before my interview, the “Late Night” publicist I ran into on NBC texted Conan and said, “Sona is a rock star” or something along those lines. I feel like he should probably apologize to Conan now for lying to him about that. But really, I think having someone to vouch for me internally really pushed me over the edge of getting hired.
There’s a whole world of personal assistants willing to go the extra mile: they drive to their boss’s house, replenish all the flowers, scatter rose petals through the bathroom, and fill the bathtub with lavender…
I feel like Conan probably ran into a few while he was interviewing, but I was someone who clearly loved television, was familiar with his work, and I think we both felt like this is something that can really be done to work.
The relationship that developed later was absolutely unexpected from both of us. But I’ve learned some pretty important lessons from Conan in my 13 years as his assistant.
1. Being professional isn’t as useful to a comedian as a sense of humor
When I look back at my working relationship with Conan when I first started the job, I remember being so buttoned up. Conan was always messing around and joking in the office, but there was a very strong mutual professionalism and respect when I first started out.
The breaking point of our professional dynamic was about three months into the job – I spoke to my grandmother on the phone one day in Armenian. When I hung up, Conan said, “What was that?” I told him I was talking to my grandma – and he said, “Oh, it sounded like you were arguing with Dracula.” That was joke number one.
He met my father once and started making fun of his mustache. His story was that my father built my brother out of wood because he is Gepetto the doll maker.
A year later he told people that I was born on the island of Armenia and that my father was a goatherd. Apparently there was an attack and my father put me in a basket and I floated to this land where I jumped out of a bush while Conan was walking down the street and he thought, “Oh, I’m going to tame this person and make her my assistant.”
It was just riff after riff, after riff.
I think if I hadn’t laughed at the joke he initially made about my argument with Dracula, our dynamics would have been very different – but when I laughed then and all the other ridiculous things he said about me after that, I think that he realized I had a sense of humor.
And I recognized that he really appreciated having someone around that he could laugh at and make him laugh. We both let the professionalism between us chip away. Now there just isn’t any. Conan went from just my boss to my boyfriend and surrogate brother – as the dynamics changed, so did my work ethic.
2. Being treated like garbage is not a requirement to move to Hollywood
Not only did Conan let me be myself early on, he got a kick out of it — and made sure his audience did too.
Appearing on screen with Conan wasn’t something I was necessarily hoping for. It was really organic. Conan is good at using the people around him for comedy. So he started to get me in pieces in the air. I think the biggest one was one day when I lost my mug, and I wrote a very damning email to the entire staff, which was a complete abuse of that email list – every single person working on the show and everyone from the network, all executives – everyone. And I was like, “where’s my mug?” And an hour later, Conan shows up at my desk and he has a camera crew. From there it just became a thing.
I think what Conan appreciates about me is that I don’t try to solve it in front of the camera. I don’t really change who I am. I have no ambitions to be in front of the camera. I have no hope of becoming the next Conan. I think if it all ended tomorrow and he didn’t use me for a while or I wasn’t on the podcast I’d be fine — and I think he likes that about me.
I also think our dynamics are just fun to watch. When you put a camera on it, people are like, that can’t be real. And then when they realize it’s real, they’re curious. I think what fascinates people is that authority is a complicated concept in the dynamics of Conan and I.
He’s the boss – he hired me, he pays me and eventually he can fire me. But sometimes I really don’t act like it. I talk back to him. I forget important things. I tend to ignore things that are important to him. But in the end, Conan knows that I would 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 needs to be when he needs to be anywhere. I don’t have to have the boss-assistant relationship with him that everyone expects to do. 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 have to go ‘up’ as an assistant. I got everything I want in a job, here
I don’t know how I got rid of the ambition car, but I’m grateful that I did. When I started, I was like many people. I wanted to take over the network. I wanted to work in development or programming or planning or research — I wanted to run the show and I thought, “I’m going to take over television.”
Then I saw many people who were in that position. I’m not going to say that executives don’t like their jobs. I’m sure they do. But I also think they feel like they’re constantly on the chopping block. I think they constantly feel like people want their jobs, or if new management comes in, they’re going to restructure everything and they won’t have their jobs anymore.
None of that appealed to me. I wanted to be happy at work and not have to feel that fear and pressure.
When I got my job on the “Tonight Show,” I loved going to work every week. There are so many people who are afraid of going to work on Monday. I never felt like I was working for Conan. I started to realize how special that was, and how valuable it was. I’m working with, in my opinion, the funniest person on television, and I’m working on a show that I’m proud of. I realized I didn’t have to look for the next thing. I think I’ll be Conan’s assistant until he dies – I’m going to be on this wave as long as possible.
A few years ago I would have thought it crazy to be an assistant. Most people don’t think of a job as an assistant in entertainment as a job forever. There are, of course, people who are career assistants, but I never saw myself as that person.
But I work with people I love, Conan asks me for my opinion on things, and everything I wanted from a job is in this role. I don’t want to go anywhere else.
I don’t know if it’s a lack of ambition – I think my ambition just turned into something else.
My old me (in my NBC page days) would look at me and think, wait – you’re still an assistant? But then my page itself would look at me and say, wait – you’ve written a book and you’ve finished it? Are you on the New York Times bestseller list? That was never on the vision board. Are you on a podcast? Do you even know what a podcast is?
I could never have imagined ending up here when I was a page, and that’s a good thing. Keeping an open mind has served me well.
If I could inspire even one person to quit a job that makes them unhappy, I’d be happy
I think a big part of the reason I’m lucky is because I was able to go with the flow. I had family close by, so if I didn’t like a job, I had the privilege of leaving it and was given financial and emotional support to do so. I know a lot of people aren’t in that position, and I understand that. But I want to empower people to give up miserable jobs — and that’s one of the goals of my book.
I think whether you’re a Hollywood assistant or working at a local grocery store, everyone just wants to work with people who treat them with respect and are well compensated.
Unfortunately, if you want to work in an industry as competitive as television, it’s going to be a matter of luck whether you get it or not.
Alternatively, if it fails, you can read my book for tips and tricks on how to misuse your company card without technically obfuscating. Or how to take advantage of your pregnancy at work.
But I really hope people will read “The World’s Worst Assistant” and see that there are exceptions to what they think is the rule for this industry, and I hope they start demanding more for themselves.
If you work in Hollywood and want to share your story, email Eboni Boykin-Patterson at [email protected]