Being a late-night host was never easy, but rapidly changing technology has made it a hundred times worse. It was once the domain of the chosen few, but now, every major network and a growing pack of cable stations is trying to carve out a niche. How do you compete to be heard through all the noise? Well, if you’re Conan O’Brien, you leave.
Not late night — just the country. For a little while, at least. After Conan‘s visit visit to Cuba last year, the host has found a hook for his late-night show that no one else has been able to replicate: The Genial Red-Head Abroad. O’Brien has brought his show to Armenia, South Korea and, most recently, Germany, where — as you’ll see in the exclusive clip above — he tries to immerse himself in the local culture, with varying degrees of success.
O’Brien recently sat down to speak with reporters at a German sausage house in L.A. to speak about the experience. “Going to a dominatrix seemed like it would be compelling,” O’Brien said of one of his more compromising – and hilarious – activities while in Berlin. “It turned out to be more compelling because she didn’t treat it like a joke. She wanted to put things inside me and do things to me.” It was a tricky balance, he said, to have it “still have it be comedic and not break my marital vows.”
Then there’s the family of Schuhplattler dancers, seen in the video above. “We could not have invented them,” marvels O’Brien. “That is one of my favorite things that I’ve done.” His producers booked the trio sight unseen, because the dancers were twins and that was interesting on its own. Their father, however, turned out to be the best unwitting straight man, as he pushes O’Brien to greater heights of goofiness with a grim, Teutonic determination: “What did he say? ‘First ze work, zen ze play.’ There’s no play in his life!”
The crowning achievement of the trip was Conan’s visit to a Syrian refugee camp, where he manages to create a human connection across language and cultural borders by first bonding over a mustache, then simply by acting like an idiot. “They play me [at soccer] and I’m a sh***y athlete, and they’re killing me,” he recalls. “They’re cheering and taunting me. And I like … there’s something about being taunted by these refugees that feels right at this moment in time.”
The trip was inspired by Flula Borg (Pitch Perfect 2), who offered to take him around Berlin. “We had him on the show on a segment, and he’s like catnip to me. He makes me so happy.” What you see on camera was essentially their interactions: On the plane ride, at the bar, during lunch, Borg was riffing and playing with O’Brien. The host calls him “one of the best improvisers I’ve ever worked with.”
When asked if the current state of politics — and of late night — is pushing him to be more political, O’Brien says no. “I’m not a satirist,” he explains. “I admire those people greatly, but, for better or worse, I’m naturally more of a clown.” And doing these international shows has reinforced that opinion of himself. “That’s been kind of interesting to me — is how universal it has been,” he says. Even in the profoundly rural parts of South Korea or Armenia, “I can do these gestures that almost feel universal. There’s an inappropriate man — an awkward man — in every culture, and I can be that guy for them.”
When forced to confront politics in his personal life, he’s found the musical Hamilton a great help. “My kids have memorized Hamilton,” and so have all their friends, he says. “Young kids have taken to that like the Beatles or One Direction.” So when it came time to explain to them what happened on election night — his children were upset by the results — O’Brien told them, “You guys know Hamilton. This has been going on since Day 1! That was the beginning. Look what Burr said about Hamilton. Look what Jefferson said about Hamilton. Look what Hamilton said about Jefferson and Burr. One of these guys killed the other guy.” They were able to take some comfort in the fact that American democracy has always been unpredictable.
Because O’Brien’s family are such big Hamilton fans, they attended the Conan taping when Lin-Manuel Miranda was a guest. Coincidentally, it was the episode where they showed the audience an early screener of the dominatrix footage. “[Producer] Mike Sweeney — moments before — realized, put two and two together, ran back there, went into the room where my kids were hitting each other with sticks after meeting Lin Manuel-Miranda, and quickly turned off the television.” So the kids won’t be watching the dominatrix segment, but what will his wife think? O’Brien doubts she’ll see it: “She’s not a fan of the show,“ anyway.”
Conan in Berlin premieres Wednesday, Dec. 7 at 10 p.m. on TBS.