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Mike Sweeney is remarkably devoid of a sense of entitlement. Tall, lanky, and slightly rumpled, he’s got the charm of a distracted postadolescent. He seems genuinely laid-back and unassuming, which is quite a feat for someone who’s made it in the bruising world of network comedy talk shows. Now the head writer of the long-running “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” Sweeney is part of the comedy establishment. But Sweeney’s actually a pretty intense guy who’s honed his comedic skills for the last 20 years. After graduating from Fordham University School of Law in 1982, he worked as a litigator at Liberty Mutual Insurance Company in New York. For most people, being a lawyer is all-consuming. But for Sweeney, it was just a day gig. After putting in a 10-hour day, he’d go home, don a T-shirt, and hit the clubs until 2 a.m. to pursue his real passion: performing stand-up comedy. For more than three years he led this grueling double life. Then came the really tough part: earning his keep as a comedian. NATURAL-BORN COURT JESTER? During trials, Sweeney would test his material on the jury. “There was this group of people just sitting there. So I’d [tell jokes] during voir dire. … I just kind of made fun of everything.” Of course, not everyone was amused: “One judge called me to his bench and said he would find me in contempt if I made another joke.” But at his swan song trial, he had a prophetic moment: “The judge was really great, and the plaintiff’s lawyer said, ‘I don’t see you as a lawyer much longer. I see you in entertainment.’” WHAT’S SCARIER: TRIALS OR LIVE COMEDY? “Trials were scarier. I did over 12 trials, and they were terrifying. I remember at one trial my shirt was drenched. And this was before the trial even started! Plus I never learned to cross-examine someone. I wasn’t brought up to ask people leading questions.” DECIDING TO CUT THE CORD “I stopped practicing law [in 1986] when I started to make $100 a week in comedy. I wasn’t scared; I was excited. I really didn’t think I was meant to be a lawyer.” IS LAW FUNNY? “I had a few routines about being a lawyer, but mostly no — it’s too harrowing to joke about.” HOW HE SURVIVED AS A STAND-UP COMIC “My rent was $250 a month; it was an illegal sublet on Second Avenue [in Manhattan]. Pretty soon [after leaving law] I started making $200-$300 a week. I was doing comedy seven days a week; I didn’t take vacations. By the time I got this ["Late Night" job in 1995], I was making $90,000 a year. But I didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t save.” THE BIG BREAK Getting hired to do warm-up for “Late Night.” Sweeney’s job was to rev up the audience for O’Brien’s opening act. In 1995, after six years of warm-ups, “Late Night” finally hired him as a staff writer — his first steady job since he left law. He was crowned head writer in 2000. HIS JOB NOW “Being head writer is not just writing but a lot of managerial stuff. I mostly figure out what the [main] comedy piece will be. I read everything. I edit stuff and offer ideas. Conan weighs in, too. He’s a great ad-libber. He’s the quickest guy in comedy — and I’ve been around a lot of quick comedians.” WHY DID CONAN PICK HIM? “Well, we’re both tall and we’re both Irish.” Seriously, Sweeney adds, “[Head writer] was a job I never had my eyes on. They made me do it. The other head writer left.” HOW GLAMOROUS IS THIS? Though his seedy club days are over — he now operates out of NBC’s showcase headquarters in Rockefeller Center — there’s nothing posh about Sweeney’s work digs. Grungy, graffiti-covered, and strewn with the occasional lewd toy, the place looks like a frat house. But it’s here that Sweeney and his staff of 12 writers brainstorm, churning out jokes and routines for 168 shows a year. “I don’t see my family during the week. I usually go in at 10 a.m., and I get out between 10 and midnight.” The upside: “I’m making more moola. The [other] good thing is, I get nine weeks off a year.” GOOD AS IT GETS? “Although there’s no security in television, I feel very lucky that the show has done so well. I feel pretty good that I have a cool TV job in New York City.” He’s thankful that he doesn’t have to work in Los Angeles, “because L.A. is more like a company town. It’s less of an exotic job there.” READY FOR PRIME TIME? “The conventional wisdom is that I should be working on a sitcom. But I’m not really interested in that. Your agent/manager always wants you to create a sitcom, because if it’s a success and it goes into syndication, everybody makes millions.” This is the second in an occasional series about lawyers who have given up law to pursue their dream jobs. Submit your Escapees nominees to [email protected].

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