The Case for Meh Ambition

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Courtesy of Plume

Sona Movsesian is excellent at her job — or rather, not doing it. Everyone has goofed off on the job either out of boredom or protest. If you’re Movsesian, you turn that desire not to work into your full-time job. You find ways to watch 58 hours of Friends while on the job; you get your boss to hire you an assistant; you turn not working into a successful bit your comedian boss somehow loves.

That boss, by the way, is former late-night host Conan O’Brien. When a scheduled guest fell through last-minute in 2019, O’Brien enlisted Movsesian, his assistant of over ten years, to stand in. Within five minutes — wherein she mocked his voice, told everyone she fantasized about poisoning him, and asked an audience member for weed — he realized his mistake. “Gosh, the audience turned on me immediately,” he sighs. By the end of the segment, Movsesian had them chanting for Conan to buy her a house. It was a window into their unorthodox boss-assistant relationship and the way Movsesian has subverted expectations for the role by simultaneously doing both more and less than her job requires.

Now, 13 years into the assistant role for O’Brien, Movsesian has turned not doing her job into an art form. And with the release of her new book, The World’s Worst Assistant, she offers others a guide to doing as she does (well, doesn’t). It comes complete with anecdotes about personal and professional Ls and illustrated comics with titles like “How to Nap at Work” and “How to Abuse Your Corporate Card Without Technically Embezzling” that offer step-by-step advice for your inner slacker. Luckily, Conan is in on the joke — he even insisted on writing the foreword, which both delighted and worried Movsesian. “I guess it’s a really nice thing,” she tells me, “but it’s also like, why does he want me to put it out there that I’m so bad?” Some may be horrified by the dysfunctional work environment the twosome have created, but, she writes, “This is the new American dream.”

I want to start off by saying I find your lack of ambition truly inspiring. It’s trending up among women now during the pandemic, but you were ahead of the curve. 

Thank you. My ambition was to do a job I really like, and then once I got comfortable in that job, to get to a place where I was coasting. I want to focus on my personal life and my family life, and then have work be a separate thing that doesn’t consume me completely. I started off like a lot of people do in television where I was like, “I’m going to take over the TV world,” you know, become an executive with a suit with shoulder pads, and walk around the hall wearing heels. Then, sometime in my time working for Conan, someone was like, “What are you going to do after you’re done with Conan?”, and I was like, “You know what? I just really like it here.” It sounds weird, but it was really liberating for me to get to that point. If we’re going to talk about the downfall of my ambition, I think it really was rooted to a point where I was like, “Hey, I like where I am right now. I don’t need to go anywhere else,” and that’s pretty much it.

There used to be a time where it was part of the feminist agenda to encourage women to be more ambitious, and not wanting more was seen as odd. Now eyes are being opened to the idea that it’s okay to just want to be comfortable and live a nice life and not need to have to climb higher.

That’s exactly it. When people think about assistants, it’s looked at as this job that you take in order to get someplace else. A big part of what changed about me with my job was I started to realize that I’m valuable. That was a really empowering thing for me to realize. From there it just sort of snowballed, and I got to a point where I was like, Why do I have to want anything more? I get a lot of time off. I could spend time with my kids. I like what I do, and I feel like my voice is heard. Instead of reaching for this job that could be much higher than whatever my position was, I realized that whatever I would get from that, I could get from where I already was.

You use this human-centipede metaphor to describe the workplace hierarchy in the entertainment industry, with assistants positioned at the back eating the shit expelled from the people in front (executives, producers). It’s gross but effective. You took a job where people are regularly mistreated and turned it into your dream job, and not a lot of people would know how to do that.

Well, not a lot of people get the opportunity. A big reason why I was able to be the way I am at work is because of Conan. He saw something in me that was valuable in a different way besides someone who was the perfect assistant, and that was someone who would screw up and give him fodder for comedy. Sometimes for comedians, that’s so much more valuable. He’s really loved that whole “I’m a terrible assistant” thing and turning it into comedy. I mean, the moment I told him I wanted to write the book, he was like, “I’m writing the foreword.”

What I’ve taken away from my job is that if people in management positions treat their employees kindly, it makes a huge difference. It’s so simple but sadly it’s not very common, especially in entertainment. I hope that it changes because I think you’re right: There’s something seismic changing with the workforce where they’re just not going to tolerate being mistreated anymore.

I’m a fan of his, and that means I’ve gotten to know you via the show. Like the gigolos mug story and the trip to Armenia — I’d seen those segments, but the book gives us the behind-the-scenes of that from your perspective, and that’s what makes it fun because you do get a sense of how playful your relationship with him is. Also, I mean, it’s really cool of him as your boss to be okay with not coming across great all the time.

I wrote it thinking, Am I going to get Conan canceled?, and then I went through all the stories and I was like, He’s done nothing that would get himself canceled. I thought I would expose him for all the times he smacks food out of my hand. The HR bit we did on the show was me talking about all the times that he’s sort of abused me, but it is done in a very sort of big brother/younger sister kind of way, and both of us grew up with siblings. It almost feels as though I’ve been training for this job my whole life because my brother is very similar to Conan. I really did think, Am I going to make Conan look bad?, and the more I wrote it, the more I was like, Oh, I’m just making myself look bad. I’m just exposing myself for how lazy I could be sometimes. I’m never going to get a job after this.

I think you’ll always be fine if Conan’s around. 

I’m going to ride his coattails until he dies. That’s something I have definitely decided. I’m going to just ride these coattails until he is in a home somewhere.

One of the best tips you share is that when you’re running errands with Conan, you look ahead for the most expensive restaurant nearby so Conan can foot the bill. How long did it take you to develop tricks like this? 

It was shockingly quick. There was one time I remember where he was like, “Hey, call up so-and-so, so-and-so, and so-and-so. I’m going to take you guys out for a dinner just to thank you for everything,” and I was like, “Okay,” and he’s like, “And pick a place.” When you search Google or Yelp, they have dollar signs that tell you how expensive a place is, so we were like, “Let’s just suggest this one place,” and I still remember which restaurant. It was Providence in Los Angeles. It’s like hundreds of dollars per person to eat there. It’s like a molecular gastronomy restaurant. We were like, “Hey, how about this place? Providence?”, and he was like, “Okay, that sounds good.” So we went there. That’s how it’s been for a lot of things. It’s a lot of like dipping my toe in, and realizing, Oh, he’s cool with it? Okay, then I’m just going to dive right in and take advantage as much as I can, which is terrible, but it’s also been a lot of fun. Like, I’ve eaten at a lot of really great places because of it, you know?

In his foreword, he basically calls you an evil genius. There’s a part in the book where you suddenly change the font to huge lettering to take up more space in an effort to write less and still meet your word count. And I just have to respect that “What can I get away with?” mentality.

So I had twin boys about ten months ago, and the deadline for my book was a few months after they were born, and I got to a point where I was like, I just can’t write anymore, and I was like, I think I’m just going to write a whole section just taking up space, and I used every single tool I would use in college, you know, just defining random words, going into long sort of summaries about things that didn’t make sense, widening the margins, making the font bigger.

It fit so well with the theme of the book, it ended up working. It was to my benefit that I was writing about laziness and about not putting in the effort and my lack of professionalism that I could write an entire section in a book about just complete nonsense.

Congrats on having twins! Has that put a wrinkle in your pursuit of easy living? 

These boys have completely ruined my whole pursuit of just coming home and taking a couple edibles on my balcony and then falling asleep anywhere in the house. But in the best way possible. I don’t think you can half-ass motherhood.

The Case for Meh Ambition