Sona Movsesian with Conan O’Brien in Armenia, at the Garni Temple

Sunny with a Chance of Funny: Sona Movsesian Wants to Be Your Friend

2003
0

LOS ANGELES — Speaking to Sona Movsesian one would be hard-pressed to remember that this young woman regularly appears on the popular “Conan” talk show on TBS, and is co-host, along with Conan O’Brien and producer Matt Gourley, of the very popular “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend Podcast,” as well as the “Summer S’mores with Conan and the Chill Chums.”

You can even buy Sona swag, including “Team Sona” t-shirts and “World’s Worst Assistant” mugs.

Sona Movsesian

Movsesian, who sounds exactly like the friendly person one hears on the podcast, said it is no accident. “If I have a camera pointed at me or not, I am the same person. It’s me.”

Movsesian sounds enviably relaxed. “I have always been someone who is not stressed or anxious. I’m definitely not creating a persona.”

For about 10 years, Movsesian has been O’Brien assistant. For the bulk of those years, the running joke, both on television and now on the podcast, is what an awful assistant she is, and in turn, what a mean boss O’Brien is.

Of course, had Movsesian been a bad assistant in real life, she would have long been replaced. The older-brother-bratty-younger-sister dynamic is one that both relish and which has resulted in ratings gold. According to Variety, each “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” podcast is downloaded more than one million times, making it one of the most popular podcasts now.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

O’Brien frequently says her name and nails it every time.

Movsesian said she never wanted to change her name in order to make it more pronounceable. In turn, “He really wanted to make sure he got the name right,” she added. “He’s really gotten the name down. It sort of makes me feel that any person can do it.”

Sona on TV Skits

Search for Sona on YouTube and you will see some of the funniest O’Brien TV skits. In one, from 2018, O’Brien starts talking to Sona when she says she wants a new car as her Jetta has more than 100,000 miles on it. The host sits in the driver’s seat and starts breaking bits of the interior, from the light to the dangling sunglass holder. In the end, he suggests he buy her a car. The suggestions range from a used Bugatti ($2 million) to a used Honda ($1,000). The Honda wins, with the sellers bringing down the price to $500 — without haggling.

Sona Movsesian substituted for a guest on the “Conan” show

The story is true, said Sona Movsesian in an interview this week, with a hearty laugh. (She ended up getting herself a new Kia.)

In another, O’Brien hunts for Sona’s “stolen” mug, with the logo and name of the realty show “Gigolos,” about real-life gigolos. Such manifestly awful viewing is one of her guilty pleasures. It turned out another staffer had simply taken the mug from the kitchen.

In other skits, he often complains about her terrible taste in television — the lowest-brow reality shows. Movsesian freely admits “the amount of television I watch is insane.” She jokes that she always wanted to work in television because then she could watch TV at work. “There are TVs at all the desks. I would put on ‘Jerry Springer’ or ‘Bad Girls’ Club.’”

She has also made it to “Conan” as a guest because the actual guest, actor Kumail Nanjiani, had a last-minute emergency.

From NBC to Team Coco

Movsesian, a graduate of the University of Southern California, worked for NBC in the events and operations division before connecting with O’Brien. Her Los Angeles-based department collaborated with many programs on the network and she ended up in contact with O’Brien’s publicist. At that time, his talk show was still based in New York.

“When I found out that Conan was coming to LA, I said I wanted to work for him. They said they would post the job in the fall. At that time, a PA [production assistant] position was open,” and they suggested that she apply for that. However, right before the interview for that post, Marc Liepis, a writer and line producer for O’Brien who had worked with Movsesian, texted O’Brien about her. In brief, she was interviewed by O’Brien instead for the post of assistant that day and got it that day.

“When I first started, it was the typical stuff. I take care of his schedule and lunch and make sure he is where he is supposed to be. Basically the job is to keep the boss happy. I am a gatekeeper for Conan,” she said. She noted that he does not assign her many personal tasks like the dreaded dry-cleaning runs and dog walks.

Over time, she said, the relationship organically evolved from being “very professional and very respectful” on both their parts, to one that involves a familial and familiar relationship between the two. “We weren’t in the same city, let alone same state,” she said, when she first started working for O’Brien. O’Brien moved to Los Angeles three months after she started working for him.

O’Brien is genuinely funny in real life and wants to joke with everyone, she said. “It’s because he is from a big Irish Catholic family and he jokes with all the people around him,” Movsesian said.

The icebreaker that transformed their once-professional relationship was when she was talking on the phone to her grandmother in Armenian at the office. “He had just moved out here. I was talking to my grandmother and he says, ‘It sounds like you are arguing with Dracula.’”

Movsesian could not stop laughing. “That kind of opened the floodgates,” she said. “It quickly deteriorated into a brother-sister dynamic.”

Sona Movsesian with Conan O’Brien in Armenia in Yerevan

Team Coco and NBC Debacle

Before hosting the talk show “Late Show with Conan O’Brien” starting in 1993, he had been a writer for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons.”

O’Brien may joke about Movsesian’s work ethic and she in turn might call him a demanding jerk in jest, but their relationship has been tested by a real drama of epic proportions.

Long story short, in 2009 Conan O’Brien took over “The Tonight Show” after host Jay Leno’s retirement. The move had been long in the making. Leno, breaking his word, came back to work, this time on an hour-long talk show in prime time, therefore directly competing with “The Tonight Show” for guests. The ratings kept deteriorating and he got the network to give him the 11.30 time slot, pushing back O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” to midnight. O’Brien complained that he was being hemmed in from every side and wasn’t given a chance. NBC agreed to buy his contract out, but also according to the terms of the settlement, prohibited him from appearing on television for six months.

O’Brien experienced a lot of pain and received a groundswell of support, leading to the launch of his show, “Conan,” on TBS.

Movsesian was a tremendous support to O’Brien at the time he was experiencing a deep depression.

“I was one year into my job and it still felt like a new job for me. When I look back on it, it was one of the most exciting and thrilling times,” she said.

The situation resulted in a relentless media circus, with many outlets offering money for any morsel of information about the participants. Paparazzi were pitched in front of O’Brien’s house and often, Movsesian said, she would go and pick him up in her car, which was nondescript enough that they would ignore it.

The situation, she noted, was a real eye opener for her in terms of who is trustworthy, what goes on behind the scenes and how the business operates.

A scene from the documentary “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”

He could have been really bitter, she recalled; instead, “his last speech on the show was really sweet and uplifting. They had screwed him over,” she recalled. His gracious attitude, she said, “made me look at him differently.”

In turn, she earned his trust. “It was very easy for people to exploit this position. That is definitely not in my DNA to betray the person I am working for. He knows that about me now.”

O’Brien embarked upon a national comedy tour during the time he could not be on television. Footage from the 32-city-tour eventually was turned into a documentary, “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.”

‘Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend’ Podcast

If you haven’t listened to the “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” podcast, do yourself a favor and download it. The hour-long podcast, which was launched in 2018, heavily features Movsesian and producer Matt Gourley. The guests range from comics and actors (Tom Hanks, Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Martin Short, Jim Gaffigan, Eric Idle) to fellow talk show hosts (Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman), all the way to political heavyweights Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton.

The format allows O’Brien and his guest to delve deeply into subjects — sometimes seriously — without commercial interruptions and censorship. His razor-sharp intelligence shines through. (Since March all the hosts and guests have participated remotely.)

Of course, he and his crew — including Movsesian — also do hilarious ads for various services and products, from State Farm Insurance to the Tushy Bidet.

The latter, Movsesian said, is a favorite. “He brought me in to say it,” she recalled, chuckling.

If O’Brien comes across as intelligent, it is because he is, Movsesian said.

“He is probably one of — if not the — smartest people I have ever met. He chooses the right combination of words that is always the funniest,” she said.

The Harvard grad (with honors), and two-time president of the Harvard Lampoon, “constantly feels the need to educate himself. He is always reading a giant biography of a president or a book on the Civil War or World War II. I knew he was smart but I did not fully understand” just how smart, she noted.

“He and I always knew we have a very dysfunctional boss and assistant relationship,” she said.

A focus group for the podcast indicated, “people liked our dysfunctional dynamic.”

Movsesian clearly enjoys herself on the podcast. “It’s one of the favorite parts of my job,” she said.

Movsesian comes through as someone who is comfortable in her skin.

“I’m very open. He grew up in a very different household, which was not as loud as mine. He censors himself a lot more,” she added.

Movsesian, like O’Brien is self-deprecating. “I was never an aspiring writer or comedian. The end game is not to become a comedian,” she said.

Asked how she prepares, she notes honestly, “I don’t really prepare. Mot of the time we just start recording.”

And deflecting any compliments, she said, “I am only as good as I can be with Conan. I think Conan has a way of bringing out the funny with me.”

Some of the guests are superstars. When asked if she gets nervous or the opposite, jaded, she replied, “It is the coolest thing in the world. The worst thing that can happen is to get jaded. I have kept that in mind. I constantly remind myself how cool it is.”

She joked that she and a long time friend have what they call “just come home” moments, when either of them is in a situation which is so incredible that they feel they don’t belong in it. One such moment was when Movsesian was attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington in 2015, with O’Brien hosting it.

“I kept thinking ‘you don’t belong there.’ I have so many moments like that,” she said.

Just how nice are some of those celebrities who come across as nice? It turns out, they are.

“Ted Danson [of ‘Cheers’ and ‘The Good Place’], right before we started recording, was really nice to everyone,” she said. Pre-taping tests can be tedious, as the guest has to get connected to microphones just right.

Another was Sean Hayes of “Will and Grace” who chatted happily to everyone during the pre-taping process.

And who can forget the super chill, super jazzy and laid back Jeff Goldblum. “He is really cool. After we recorded the interview, he called the office. He said ‘I just wanted to call and follow up and have a conversation’ with the staff,” Movsesian said.

And of course, famously nice guy Tom Hanks, she recalled, called everyone out by name. “He is a genuinely nice person. It is not a myth. He is a very decent person,” she recalled.

Of course some people fluster the cool-as-ice Sona. “I am a big Lakers’ fan and I met [the late] Kobe [Bryant] right after they had won the championship. He was so happy and loose. Not how he normally was, which was very focused.”

Other standouts, he said were Magic Johnson and guitarist Slash of the band Guns and Roses.

And of course, famously nice guy Tom Hanks, she recalled, called everyone out by name. “He is a genuinely nice person. It is not a myth. He is a very decent person,” she recalled.

In a skit Conan O’Brien bought a “new” car for Sona Movsesian

On the show, another running joke O’Brien makes is Movsesian’s use of cannabis. When asked about it, Movsesian chuckled and said, “It has been legal here for a very long time.”

She added, “I told him I do it from time to time. I am not a pothead. I just unwind sometimes. I never wake up and do it. I’m not Tommy Chong.”

She added, however, that if she and her friends go to Disneyland, they do so while ingesting the good stuff.

Movsesian also has her own Instagram show, “Sona Fixes Your Life,” where viewers submit questions or dilemmas they are facing. “I am completely useless,” she said. “The name should be ‘Sona makes your life even more complicated!’”

Sona and Conan Visit Armenia

O’Brien started recording travel shows as part of “Conan” in 2015, with a trip to Cuba. The show was well received and so enjoyable to do that he decided to do another one.

Many Armenian-Americans have seen the absolutely riotous episode of O’Brien’s visit to Armenia.

Movsesian recalled that the writers were sitting around a table when O’Brien said, “Why don’t we take Sona to Armenia.”

“As we were planning it, Armenia books were coming in and the writers were researching all the names and I heard Yerevan,” she added, noting that she was incredibly touched.

“All these things I had grown up listening to and learning about… I can’t tell you how amazing that experience was,” she said.

The trip, which was her first to Armenia, made for hilarious viewing. Before the trip, she said, she was very nervous. “If you put something out there, it could very easily have been a disaster.” Instead, the result was a funny and touching episode capturing a lot of sweet moments. “I was very proud to be part of that episode,” she added.

Tending to a herd of sheep in Armenia with Conan O’Brien

In addition, she got a bonus present, a tape of her grandmother. In the early portion of the episode, O’Brien visits the Movsesians’ home in Los Angeles and speaks with her grandmother. In broken English, she asks that O’Brien find her granddaughter an Armenian husband. “She passed away a few months later,” Movsesian said.

In Armenia the 6’4”, super pale O’Brien got a lot of attention. Add a trailing camera crew and everyone’s interest was piqued.

Some in Armenia, she added, had seen his clips on YouTube. “We met a lot of people who knew of Conan because of YouTube.”

The trip was a success. “He really liked it. There were 10 of us. Everybody was so pleasantly surprised at how beautiful Yerevan is as well as the countryside,” she recalled. One day, after a particularly harrowing car ride to the mountains to herd some sheep, she said O’Brien told her, “This is one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen.”

He was also touched to see her teary reaction, looking at Mount Ararat in the distance. The episode contains a lot of self-deprecating humor by O’Brien, as well as hilarious efforts to learn the language [Let me eat your liver] and find a husband for the then-unattached Movsesian through a matchmaker. He even found time to make a cameo in a soap opera and dance at Garni in traditional garb.

Sona Movsesian on her wedding day with husband Tak Boroyan

O’Brien and the crew have also gone on to many other countries, including Haiti, Korea, Greenland, Qatar, Ghana and Israel. Those episodes are part of “Conan without Borders” specials.

Background

Movsesian was born in Montebello to parents who were both born in Turkey. Her father hails from Western Armenian, Sivas (Sepastia), and her mother from Istanbul. Her father, she said, came to Los Angeles when he was in his late teens, and later met his future wife here.

She has one brother.

A graduate of the Mesrobian Armenian School, she regularly lends her time and name to various Armenian organizations, including the Armenia Tree Project, Armenia Fund and Children of Armenia Fund.

“It’s honestly been the best byproduct of my job,” she said. “One of the things I really loved was how many Armenian organizations and philanthropists I met.”

She added, “I am blown away by how much people in the diaspora help Armenia.”

Movsesian noted that she tries to help out whenever possible. “Chances are I will do it. I try to say yes to everything.”

Movsesian married Armenian-born graphic designer Tak Boroyan in 2018. She and Boroyan met at ComiCon. “He recognized me because of the Armenia show. Conan will always take credit for it,” she said with a laugh.

Their connection, however, was no joke. “Both of us knew on the first date that we would get married,” she said.

Now Movsesian’s problem is that if she has a tough day at work or disagrees with O’Brien, she will get no sympathetic ear at home. “Tak was a fan of Conan before we met. It is really hard to complain about your work. He will say ‘It’s CONAN!’ There’s a real bromance brewing.”

(You can see a video of their wedding as well as O’Brien dancing at the wedding, on YouTube.)

As for the future, Movsesian said, “I don’t try to plan too far in advance.” She said she is pretty happy where she is. “Why rock the boat?”

Watch “Conan” on TBS and listen to “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” on all podcast platforms.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: