It began with Cuba. After President Obama opened up relations with the country in 2015, Conan O’Brien decided to take his TBS show there for a special episode, making him the first late-night host to film in Cuba since 1962. In the nearly two years since, he has filmed special episodes in Armenia, South Korea, Qatar, and now Berlin.
But in a conversation with journalists on Friday at Wirtshaus, a German beer hall in Los Angeles that O’Brien jokingly renamed the “worst house,” the host said he is hoping to do the same type of trip in the coming months to an even more exotic location for a member of the west coast media elite: Donald Trump’s America.
The day after Donald Trump surprised a majority of the country by getting himself elected president, O’Brien opened his show with a message of optimism. “The optimist in me today chooses to be happy that we have fair and free elections at all. I think it’s an amazing thing, I really do. I mean that with all of my heart,” he said. “In the last few years I’ve traveled to a bunch of countries — Cuba, Armenia, the Middle East — where the people would give anything to have our system. In America, we get to pick who’s going to ruin our country, and that is a privilege.”
It was that heartfelt speech, O’Brien said on Friday, that prompted his friend and fellow history buff, NPR contributor Sarah Vowell, to reach out to him with the idea about doing the same type of show in Middle America. She also suggested that he take as his companion the actor and comedian Nick Offerman, who O’Brien described as someone who comes from that part of the country and “is not condescending about it.”
The trick of doing a special like this, O’Brien said, is that he does not want to come off as “the celebrity” coming to check out these strange others in Trumpland, “because that could be horrible.” And the last thing he wants to do is “preach to the choir.”
O’Brien said that when he drives home from work every night he flips his radio back and forth between Fox News and MSNBC and what he realizes is that “no one on MSNBC is convincing anyone on Fox and no one on Fox is convincing anyone on MSNBC.”
“If you look at the celebrity culture, there were a lot of celebrities in this election that were just yelling at the other side and calling them stupid,” he continued. “And the other side didn’t have a lot of celebrities, but there was a lot of yelling back and forth about, ‘You celebrities are idiots.’ It’s not getting us anywhere. It’s very negative.”
If he is going to do the travel show to somewhere in the Rust Belt, O’Brien wants to make sure that it will “have appeal both ways, meaning that regardless of how you voted,” you could appreciate it because first and foremost it would be funny. “We wouldn’t be talking about, ‘Who did you vote for?’ The idea would not be, ‘You’re in a flyover state, haha.’ It would be a tricky balance to make sure that was the case.”
This primary focus on being funny over making a political point is a theme that came up again and again for O’Brien over the course of the lunch. In his words, he’s not a “satirist” like his network-mate Samantha Bee or Stephen Colbert. He’s a “clown” and he has no intention of changing.
Of course, that tendency towards “silliness” can be seen as abdicating a responsibility that we now expect our late-night hosts to uphold. That’s a lesson Jimmy Fallon learned the hard way when he took it easy on Trump less than two months before Election Day.
But O’Brien doesn’t think the answer is to stop making jokes for fear of “normalizing” our next president. “I don’t think we can all just say, no jokes, because this is all too beyond the pale,” he said. “Or, until he’s impeached, no jokes! That wouldn’t work.” He then added of Trump, “He’d like it, I’m sure.”
Stay tuned for more coverage of the Conan Without Borders: Berlin special, including O’Brien’s decision to highlight the humanity of refugees living in that city, ahead of its premiere next Wednesday, December 7 at 10 p.m. ET on TBS.