One of Conan O’Brien’s comedic strengths has always been his ability to self-deprecate. It’s a trait that, in addition to his absurdism, has allowed the host to forge his own path and distinguish himself in late night. Now that O’Brien has been hosting his TBS show, Conan, for five years, he’s discovered a new way to separate himself from the parlor games and politics that currently fill mainstream late night television.
With his own hour-long, Charlie Rose-esque web talk show, Serious Jibber Jabber, and international travel segments, O’Brien is resembling something of a comedic journalist. He speaks with entertainers, authors, and historians on his web series and has been breaking new ground by trekking the globe, experiencing cultures and exposing them to audiences.
Earlier this year O’Brien traveled to Cuba, a country most Americans have not seen in person for over 50 years. But as the embargo was lifted and diplomatic relations improved between the U.S. and Cuba, O’Brien seized the opportunity to film there. Visiting a cigar factory, learning Spanish, and dancing the Rumba, O’Brien was willing to make himself into a fool for an audience who knew very little about Cuban culture.
Most recently O’Brien made his way to Armenia with his assistant Sona Movsesian, whose family is of Armenian heritage. Similarly to his Cuba segment, O’Brien soaked himself in Armenian culture – learning the language, sampling their vodka, and even playing a strange looking gangster on one of the country’s soap operas.
There are two particular moments in the piece that highlight O’Brien’s ability to distinguish himself among today’s talk show hosts.
One involved O’Brien and Movsesian celebrating Yerevan Day – Armenia’s day to honor its capital city’s birthday. As O’Brien and Movsesian ventured out to a club to celebrate, they encountered fans who wanted to meet O’Brien. The fans were Syrian refugees who had been in Armenia for three years since escaping the war in their home country. O’Brien later said meeting the fans was “magical” for him and that they all “wound up going out to the Village Square and just dancing around.” In the video you can see how O’Brien did not hesitate to spend time or speak with the refugees, trying to make them laugh by mocking his own dancing abilities as well as people from L.A.
Considering all of the recent debate surrounding the potential danger of Syrian refugees, O’Brien’s encounter gave a face to the group, showing us that some refugees are simply kids seeking asylum, who also happen to be fans of Conan O’Brien.
Another portion of the trip featured very little comedy and served as one of the more touching moments between O’Brien and Movsesian: their visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex.
“Any visit to Armenia must include an acknowledgement of the country’s tragic history,” O’Brien said. The host gave a brief history of the Ottoman Empire’s “wave of violence that killed or displaced 1.5 million Armenians” one hundred years ago. It’s likely that most viewers, including myself, are not well-versed on the Armenian genocide. That a comedy show felt an obligation to address a subject as serious as this and that it integrated it naturally into a comedy segment was an impressive and respectful feat.
With a melancholy piano score, the segment showed Movsesian discussing her grandfather’s personal account of the genocide.
“To hear that my grandparents lost everyone that they knew and loved at a very young age,” Movsesian told O’Brien. “I can’t even understand what it would be like to be 12, which is how old my grandfather was, my grandmother was seven. Overnight they were orphans.”
What’s striking about Movsesian’s visit to the memorial was that O’Brien didn’t make attempts to make light of or even console his assistant as she cried. Instead he listened. His silence conveyed his sympathy and his attempt to understand a culture other than his own, one marked with a painful scar.
All O’Brien then told Movsesian was how he admires how her culture is so full of life and contrasts it with his own. “My culture’s more about ‘your reward will come in the next life, if at all.’”
When he asked Movsesian if she would come back to Armenia, she told him: “I think so, yeah definitely. I’d love to. With friends, with family. I’d love to come back.” She then paused and said: “You can come too.”
O’Brien’s latest venture in Armenia proved that, while the veteran host was always capable of creating comedy anywhere in the world, he also has the ability to get serious and inform an audience when it’s appropriate. There are some who insist O’Brien should consider hosting his own travel show after his talk show days are over. Whether or not he chooses to remains to be seen, but over the last few years, and especially after his trip to Armenia, the host has proved he can do more than just makes jokes at his own expense; he can bring understanding and thoughtfulness to other cultures, regardless of their politics or geographic location.