I’m Conan O’Brien’s assistant of 13 years. I nap on the job, expense things I shouldn’t, and talk back — and I’ll probably work for him forever.
By Eboni Boykin-Patterson
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’s learned about working in Hollywood.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Sona Movsesian, Conan O’Brien’s assistant and author of 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 get fired tomorrow, but I feel like I’ve made myself indispensable in my job — and therefore, I get away with a lot while working for Conan. I push the boundaries of what a normal assistant should and shouldn’t do. A lot.
So with Conan’s blessing — and his foreword — I wrote a book called “The World’s Worst Assistant.” “The World’s Worst Assistant,” which is now a New York Times bestseller. There are some very important techniques and bits of advice in there — including how to nap at work, how to watch a feature-length film at your desk without alerting your coworkers, or just generally, how to do the most minimal amount of work possible.
Could this advice get you fired? Well, yeah. It could. Or your situation could turn out like mine, where you get to write a book about it instead.
I didn’t always strive to get away with things at work. In fact, when I started out, I was quite the opposite — I worked really 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 out in the entertainment business that was all about paying your dues and giving yourself completely to your jobs — compromising who you are and what you want to get ahead, get a job, or to make 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 straightforward
Before I got the job as Conan’s assistant, I was an intern at NBC, and then I was a page. I got a job at NBC after that, and while working there, I heard Conan’s show was moving to LA. I remember going to HR and being like, “Hey, I want to work on Conan’s show.”
I didn’t have a plan for how I was going to be a part of the show. I just knew I wanted to work on it. The HR department said they’d post jobs in the fall. I checked the website everyday until a PA job was posted. I applied, and surprisingly was brought in to interview as Conan’s assistant instead.
They had me do a first interview, which was pretty professional and straightforward, and then I had my second interview with Conan and two of the producers. I think that right off the bat, they could see that I was cool under pressure — an important trait for a Hollywood assistant.
Plus, right before my interview, the publicist for “Late Night,” who I had crossed paths with at NBC, texted Conan and said “Sona’s a rock star,” or something along those lines. I feel like now he should probably apologize to Conan for lying to him about that. But really, I think that having someone internal vouch for me really took me over the edge toward getting hired.
There’s a whole world of personal assistants who are ready and willing to go the extra mile: They’ll drive to their boss’s homes, replenish all of the flowers, scatter rose petals around the bathroom, and fill up the bathtub with lavender…
I feel like Conan probably encountered a few of those while he was interviewing, but I was someone who clearly loved television, was familiar with his work, and I think both of us felt like this is something that can really work.
The relationship that later developed was definitely unexpected on both our parts. But I’ve learned some pretty important lessons from Conan in my 13 years as his assistant.
1. Being professional is not as useful to a comedian as a sense of humor
When I look back at my working relationship with Conan when I had just started the job, I remember I was so buttoned up. Conan was always riffing and joking around the office, but there was a very strong mutual professionalism and respect there when I first started.
The breaking point of our professional dynamic was about three months into the job — I was talking to my grandma on the phone in Armenian one day. 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 dad once and started making jokes about his mustache. His story was that my dad built my brother out of wood because he’s Gepetto the puppet maker.
A year later, he was telling people that I was born on the island of Armenia and my dad was a goat herder. Apparently, there was an attack and my dad put me in a basket and I floated to this country where I jumped out of a bush while Conan was walking down the street and he thought, “Oh, I’m going to domesticate this person and make her my assistant.”
It was just riff after riff, after riff.
I think that, had I not laughed at the joke he initially made about me arguing with Dracula, our dynamic would’ve been a lot different — but when I laughed then and at all the other ridiculous things he said about me after that, I think he realized I had a sense of humor.
And I acknowledged he really valued having someone around who he could riff off of and make laugh. We both let the professionalism between us chip away. Now there’s just none left. Conan went from being just my boss to my friend and surrogate brother — when the dynamic shifted, so did my work ethic.
2. Being treated like garbage isn’t a requirement to moving up in Hollywood
Not only did Conan allow me to be myself early on, he also 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’s good at using the people around him for comedy. So he started having me in bits on-air. I think the biggest one was one day when I lost my mug, and I wrote a very scathing email to the entire staff, which was a complete abuse of that email list — every single person who worked on the show and everybody from the network, all the executives — everyone. And I was just like, “Where is my mug?” And an hour later Conan shows up at my desk and he’s got a camera crew. From there, it just became a thing.
I think what Conan appreciates about me is that I don’t try to ham it up for the camera. I don’t really change who I am. I don’t have any aspirations of being on camera. I don’t have hopes of becoming the next Conan. I think that if all of it ended tomorrow and he wasn’t using me for bits or I wasn’t on the podcast, I would be fine — and I think that he likes that about me.
I also think our dynamic is just fun to watch. When you put a camera on it, people are like, that can’t be real. And then when they realize that it’s real, they’re curious. I think what fascinates people is that authority is a complicated concept in Conan’s and I’s dynamic.
He’s the boss — he hired me, he pays me, and ultimately he can fire me. But at times, I really don’t act like it. I talk back to him. I forget important things. I tend to disregard things he feels are important. But ultimately, 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 there. I don’t have to have the boss-assistant relationship with him that everyone expects in order to do that. And Conan knows he doesn’t have to treat me like the back end of a human centipede for me to do that either.
3. I don’t need to move ‘up’ from being an assistant. I have everything I want in a job, right here
I don’t know how I got off the ambition wagon, but I’m grateful that I did. When I first started, I was like a lot of people. I wanted to take over the network. I wanted to work in development or programming or scheduling or research — I wanted to run the show, and I thought, “I’m going to take over television.”
Then I saw a lot of people who were in that position. I’m not going to say that executives don’t love 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 as though 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 was appealing 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 dread going into work on Monday. I’ve never felt that 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 need to keep looking for the next thing. I think I will be Conan’s assistant until he dies — I’m going to ride this wave for as long as I can.
Some years ago, I would’ve thought it was crazy that I was still an assistant. Most people don’t think of an assistant job in entertainment as a forever-job. There are, of course, people who are career assistants, but I never looked at myself as that person.
But I’m working with people that I love, Conan asks me for my opinions on things, and everything that I wanted out of 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 changed to something else.
My old self, or me in my NBC page days, would look at me now and think, wait — you’re still an assistant? But then my page self would look at me and say, wait — you wrote a book and you finished it? You’re on the New York Times best-seller list? That was never on the vision board. You’re on a podcast? Do you even know what a podcast is?
I never could have envisioned myself 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 miserable, I’d be happy
I think a big part of why I’m lucky is because I was able to go with the flow. I had family around, so if I didn’t like a job, I had the privilege to leave it and have financial and emotional support to do so. I know a lot of people aren’t in that position, and I get that. But I do want to be able to empower people to leave miserable jobs — and that’s one of the goals of my book.
I think that whether you’re a Hollywood assistant or you work at a local grocery store, everyone just wants to work with people who treat them with respect, and everyone wants to be compensated properly.
Unfortunately if you want to work in an industry that’s as competitive as television, whether you get that is going to come down to luck.
Alternatively, if it doesn’t work out, you can read my book for tips and tricks on how to abuse your corporate card without technically embezzling. Or how to leverage your pregnancy at work.
But I really hope that 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 that they start to demand more for themselves.