Everyone’s got to start somewhere, and if you were a child actor living in New York City during the 1980s and ’90s, there was a decent chance you might get called up to appear on a sketch on NBC’s “Late Night” when it was hosted by David Letterman and, later, Conan O’Brien. These hosts and their writing staff loved writing skits where the star got to interact with little children. With Letterman, there was a bit of an aloof, quasi-W.C. Fields vibe, whereas O’Brien was warmer and prone to getting upstaged by his precocious guest. It was a formula they went back to time and again because it always worked.
Take for instance a 1993 “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” sketch where the host and his sidekick, Andy Richter, welcome young Sarah Hughes, winner of the West Hartford Middle School Spelling Bee. If she looks awfully familiar, that’s because it’s an eight-year-old Scarlett Johansson (already flashing serious range by playing a middle-school-aged girl). When Johansson dropped by “Late Night” ten years later to promote “Lost in Translation,” O’Brien reminded her of the earlier appearance to her great embarrassment.
Scarlett casts a broken spell
According to Johansson, this was her first paying gig as a performer (which, upon a quick glance at her IMDb credits, checks out). The two had a bit of fun bantering about her experience.
Johansson: It was a very embarrassing piece of acting to look back on now. But I remember this big, red-headed man–
O’Brien: It sounds like you’re talking to the police.
Johansson: I remember Andy after the show, he was just thrilled that I was his biggest fan at the time, and he gave me this signed picture, and I still have it.
O’Brien: He carried those around back then.
The sketch itself is amusing enough. O’Brien gives words for Hughes/Johansson to spell, and, even though she repeatedly flubs a letter, they congratulate her anyway — save for Richter, who is chided by Conan and hissed at by the audience for evincing the temerity to correct a young girl on national television.
I speak from deep experience when I say you can tumble down a YouTube rabbit hole watching old “Late Night” sketches, and, in doing so, be surprised by the numerous future stars who turn up. For example, Lindsay Lohan made her television debut on “Late Night” in 1992 as a trick-or-treater dressed as “Stuff Found on the Floor of the D Train.” After a quick back-and-forth, Letterman sends the adorable little one on her way with forty feet of garden hose.
These may not be the most glamorous beginnings, but they left an impression in their own, incredibly silly way.
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