Conan O’Brien is making the most important late night talk show. Statistically there are one million late night talks shows on at around the same time every night. The hardest one to find is Conan because no one knows where TBS is. That sounds like such an old man complaint, but it’s true. Not to mention that Conan’s audience skews younger and that younger people (like me) don’t have cable.
I haven’t watched Conan’s show on TV in about six months, but I find myself watching a clip of his show online at least once a day, sometimes many more. Conan and his team are masters of creating online-friendly content, but not in a Fallon or Kimmel kind of way. They don’t generally make viral hits like “Lie Witness News” or “Lip Sync Battles”*, they just find creative ways of packaging Conan’s interviews (always a strong suit of his) or sketches so that they are easy to digest clips.
But that’s not what I’m referring to as important. What Conan is doing that is world-changing is traveling the globe to countries that most Americans would never dream of vacationing to and filming shows. He’s filmed shows in such disparate lands as Armenia, Cuba, Qatar, and Korea. Every one of these trips is hilarious, informative, and heartwarming. I learn something about each of these places while watching this absurd, giant, redheaded man make the citizens laugh.
I know almost nothing about Armenia. I have very little in common with someone living in Armenia, but I can tell you that we both agree that nothing is funnier than watching Conan dance at the Garni Temple. Diplomatically America and Cuba don’t see eye to eye, but we can’t argue that Conan learning to Rumba is hysterical. If it sounds like Conan mostly travels to other countries to show off his dancing skills, that’s because he does.
But Conan doesn’t just travel to these countries to make a fool of himself for ratings, these trips serve an important purpose. In Armenia the show visited the Armenian Genocide memorial, which commemorates a horrific historical event that many Americans may not even be aware of. In Korea he visited the DMZ and even walked into the North Korean side to do a little impromptu show. He shined a light on the still simmering conflict between the two Koreas and reminded everyone that the two countries are still at war over 60 years later.
Sure, PBS could do a documentary where they visited Armenia, or the DMZ, or Cuba, but no one would watch it. Conan is able to teach important lessons by wrapping them in humor. Comedy is universal. Not all comedy makes sense to other cultures, but every culture has some form of comedy. Conan’s brand of comedy plays well everywhere. He’s the only late night host that could pull this off. That’s not a knock on the other hosts, but they just don’t posses the comedy chops of Conan. His stick figure body, his red hair, his horrible dancing, all of these things make him stand out in any foreign country that’s not Ireland.
Even without TV cameras he wouldn’t be able to walk through Armenia, Cuba, or Korea without getting funny looks. But with the cameras and his with innate need to constantly make people laugh, he endears himself to the local populations. When you can make someone laugh without even speaking their language it breaks down barriers. People respond to someone that makes them laugh, and people certainly respond to Conan. Armenia, Cuba, and Korea are extremely different countries. In fact, they have almost nothing in common, but they all were thoroughly entertained by Conan.
There’s a deep humanity in what Conan is doing. He’s showing us that despite the massive differences we have with people around the world, at our core we are all the same. At our core all we want to do is enjoy life. We want to crack a smile when we see something absurd. We love someone that can poke fun at themselves and remind us not to take our lives so seriously. We need to be reminded that what we take for granted may be a little weird to someone else, but we should embrace our weirdness. Our weirdness is what makes us who we are.
In the same way that Anthony Bourdain teaches you about other cultures through food, Conan teaches you about cultures through comedy. But he doesn’t do it by visiting the great comedians of each country, he does so by showing you the regular people. He brings joy to children in Armenia, cigar factory workers in Cuba, and thousands of screaming fans in Korea. But in doing so he also brings joy to Americans and millions in other countries who watch his show.
Conan talks about the “diplomacy of comedy” in this video, and his heart behind making these shows. He says he want to show other countries that Americans aren’t as arrogant as they may be perceived. And he certainly accomplishes that goal, but for Americans like myself he shows us that other countries aren’t to be feared. He shows that they are full of fun-loving people like ourselves.
I love a good “Lie Witness News” from Kimmel, “Carpool Karaoke” from Corden, “Wheel of Musical Impressions” from Fallon, or a Stephen Colbert interview, but only with Conan’s shows do I learn so much about the world and humans in general. His documentary about his traveling show during his layoff between The Tonight Show and Conan was called Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop and for the sake of world relations I hope he won’t stop for a long time.
*Although “Clueless Gamer” certainly qualifies as a viral hit.