By Aram Arkun
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — During a panel talk at the Armenian International Women’s Association 25th anniversary conference earlier this month, Sona Movsesian, executive assistant for comedian Conan O’Brien, spoke about how after graduating from the University of Southern California in 2005 with a degree in communications she went to work for NBC in its Page Program, and then got a position as events and operations coordinator in the NBC publicity department.
When O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” moved to Los Angeles, his assistant for 13 years decided not to go. As Movsesian modestly tells it, she consequently “lucked out,” and was chosen. Aside from luck, though, Movsesian said in a later interview that “I think that if you work very hard and you have a very good attitude, people respond to that.”
It has been 8 years since she garnered the position on the “Tonight Show,” and last year O’Brien decided to do a show filmed in Armenia in which Movsesian played a key role on camera (and off). Movsesian said that her frequent reference to her Armenian background got O’Brien attuned to Armenian topics. In an interview after her AIWA presentation, she said that O’Brien makes references to Armenians a lot more now than before she began working for him. For example, recently, in a particular piece, actor and comedian Kevin Hart was wearing a gold and black tracksuit to work out, and O’Brien made an Armenian joke about this.
Movsesian said that though she has done some pieces on the show which have nothing to do with her being Armenian, “I am fine with being ‘the Armenian girl.’” She was surprised at the reception the special episode on Armenia got. She said, “I love that Armenians are proud of it, but I also love that non-Armenians are learning about a community they did not know much about.”
She feels like she bears a lot of responsibility as the catalyst for the episode on Armenia, so, she said, “If college students want to talk to me or people want to discuss the episode, I feel that it is my responsibility to give them that. If I can get an Armenian kid in college an internship on our show, I will try to do that. If a non-Armenian wants to talk about Armenia with me, I understand that it is my responsibility to do that in an effective way.”
Movsesian grew up in Hacienda Heights in Los Angeles County, and said that there were not that many Armenians there. It was her family, she said, that instilled her Armenian identity in her from an early age. However, she learned to read and write Armenian and made many Armenian friends when she attended the Armenian Mesrobian School. She said, “My closest friends, the ones I have known the longest, are Armenian, so we keep each other connected.” She went to various Armenian social and sports events while in college as a way of traveling and meeting people. She still speaks Armenian with her friends when she does not want others to know what they are talking about.
Movsesian added she thinks that there is a distinct Armenian sense of humor. She said, “It is very physical. We use our hands a lot, we use our bodies a lot when we do comedy. I think that is why so many Armenians have responded positively to Conan, since that is his shtick.”
She revealed that she was a class clown as a child, and part of this was because her family moved a lot. She said, “My way of coping with that was humor. I had to be outgoing. Otherwise I would have been lonely.” Her mother and father, she said, are very funny people, and her “grandpa is known for telling these really great funny stories. So I grew up in an environment with constant laughter.”
Movsesian did not have any aspirations to be in front of the camera. She said, “I am happy when it happens naturally. If anything ever comes up that they [the staff on the show] think I would be good for I am happy to do it.” She added that “I am spoiled being surrounded by some of the best writers and editors in late night television.” As far as her interactions with O’Brien go, she said, “He and I have a naturally playful relationship. We kid around the way a brother and sister would.”
Movsesian wrote one play some years ago with her Armenian friends, called “ArmeniaMania,” but she said she does not have great aspirations to be a comedy writer at present. Instead, she said, “on the show, it is all improvisation.”
She noted she is happy where she is right now in her career, and plans to continue in her position as long as O’Brien continues his show, which could be for some time. She said, “Conan is really smart, and a very good boss, and very nice to the people he works with. As far as I know, Conan does not have any plans for retiring soon.” Movesian said that in a way, “my career can be defined by me riding a wave.” She speculated that the next wave that she will ride may take her in unanticipated directions.
As far as the AIWA conference goes, Movsesian said that it exposed her to a lot of inspiring women, and exclaimed, “I want to tell all my friends in California that we should come to this conference every year. It is fantastic!”
The Conan O’Brien show is on TBS nightly. TO see the Armenia episode, visit www.teamcoco.com