At some point next year, Conan O’Brien is hoping to take his TBS late-night show on the road to Middle America in an effort to bridge the gap between “coastal elites” like him and the voters who helped elect Donald Trump. But first, he is bringing fans the latest in his series of international specials, this one from Berlin.
O’Brien, who previously traveled to Cuba, South Korea and Armenia for his show, has all but perfected the fish out of water act that occurs when he is confronted with people who may or may not know who he is — someone mistakes him for David Letterman early in Wednesday night’s special — and are forced to communicate with him through his preferred universal language of physical comedy.
To promote the new special, titled Conan Without Borders: Berlin, the comedian sat down with a group of reporters at a German restaurant in Los Angeles. “Someone got real literal,” he joked of the setting. Over the course of 90 minutes and several beers, he discussed how this new role as travel host has reinvigorated a late-night career that has at times started to feel a little stale, even to him.
O’Brien said he got his “first dose” of this type of world travel when, “through a weird series of coincidences,” he discovered that he looked almost identical to the president of Finland, a woman in her 50s named Tarja Halonen. After she won her re-election bid, he decided to take his show to that country to “do what Donald Trump is doing now, his victory tour.” When he landed at the airport, “insanity” broke out with fans pounding on his van and TV reporters giving live updates from outside his hotel.
After that experience, he was hooked, and not just on the adoration. “Whether you’re in Armenia or whether you’re talking to refugees at Templehof or whether you’re in South Korea up near the DMZ, you do get a perspective,” O’Brien said. “And then it’s a whiplash when you come back to Los Angeles,” where he realizes how “out of whack” our priorities can be here at home. When he goes somewhere and people don’t treat him like a celebrity, he joked that he loves it “for a little bit of time, and then I have to get my ass kissed. I need to get a major award.”
“One of the things I found very impressive about Berlin,” O’Brien said of his latest destination, “is not only the degree to which they own their 20th century history, they really go out of their way to constantly remind themselves about it.” As an example, he cited the numerous Holocaust memorials that dot the city. “I’ll contrast it with our own country and our history of Native Americans, we don’t have nearly that amount of ownership over what happened,” he added.
As his guide, O’Brien chose German comedian Flula Borg, who first suggested the host visit Berlin when he was on Conan promoting his role in Pitch Perfect 2 earlier this year. O’Brien joked that they should have started filming on the plane ride over because Borg started riffing immediately and his manic improvisational energy never flagged, as can be seen in the exclusive clip below of the two men singing a German drinking song. “He’s like catnip to me, he just makes me so happy,” O’Brien said of Borg.
Among the most provocative of the special’s segments was O’Brien’s visit with a dominatrix, something he said “seemed like it would be compelling” and “turned out to be more compelling because she didn’t treat it like a joke.” He continued, “She kept trying to put things inside me and do things to me and I kept trying to stop her, keep it on the line, but still have it be comedic and not break my marital vows.”
Looking back on his two and a half decades on TV, O’Brien views this type of segment as far removed from the job he signed up for when he was picked practically out of obscurity to replace Letterman on NBC’s Late Night in the early 1990s. But at the same time, he can imagine someone like Johnny Carson embracing similar comedic possibilities if he had had the chance. “I was channeling Carson for some of that stuff,” he said. “He was very silly and a clown and I really liked that about him. He had this way of surrendering his dignity but keeping it at the same time and I always thought that’s the ultimate sleight of hand.”
Another reason O’Brien was drawn to Berlin as a destination was Germany’s progressive stance on inviting refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere into the country. During his visit to the Berlin Tempelhof airport, which was used by the Americans to deliver supplies to West Berlin before becoming the city’s largest refugee camp, O’Brien embarrassed himself in a game of soccer with a group of young men there. “There’s something about being taunted by these refugees that feels right at this moment,” he said.
O’Brien said he has an “incredible amount of respect” for German Chancellor Angela Merkel because of her decision to welcome refugees into the country. “There’s a lot of fear and anger towards the other,” he said, speaking about Americans. “But when you’re there and you see those kids, and they are kids, and you’re there with them, all of those things melt away.”
The host sees his international trips as more important than ever “at a time when people might be suspicious of Americans or we might seem arrogant or we might seem domineering or xenophobic.” And he always makes sure that the joke is on him and not the people with whom he is interacting in any of these countries. “They’re laughing at me, I’m not laughing at them,” he said. It’s his version of “comedy as diplomacy.”
“Television and how people consume it is changing rapidly,” O’Brien said. Now in his 24th season hosting a late-night show, he and his writers are in the process of “bending” the show to include more remote segments like the ones he shot in Berlin. “If that’s breaking with the old format somewhat, fine, I don’t care,” he said. He imagines himself as an “Anthony Bourdain who doesn’t teach anyone anything.”
“I’m not trying to accomplish anything with my comedy other than to make someone laugh,” O’Brien insisted. “If there’s a side benefit to it, that’s great,” he added, but ultimately all he’s trying to do it produce silly comedy. “I don’t know if this helps anybody,” he said, laughing to himself. “Other than me.”