Conan O’Brien on Bringing Conan to Armenia, Meeting Syrian Refugees, and Peaking in His 23rd Season

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Inspired by his exotic trip to Cuba earlier this year, Conan O'Brien decided to hit the road once again, but this time with his beloved longtime assistant, Sona Movsesian, sharing the center stage. Traveling to Armenia with his Conan crew in tow, the excursion was naturally spurred by Movsesian's Armenian heritage and, simply, O'Brien's yearning to learn more about it. What ensued were adventures at Armenian flea markets, a popular soap opera, a rowdy Yerevan Day celebration, and, on a more somber note, a visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial. Earlier this week, the late-night host and Movsesian talked with friend of Vulture John Horn, host of the KPCC radio show and podcast “The Frame,” about their trip of a lifetime, their unique boss-assistant dynamic, and meeting Syrian refugees.

John Horn: The last time we talked, you were about to air your episode on your trip to Cuba. Did that have some influence on your wanting to go to Armenia?
Conan O’Brien: It had a direct influence in that we realized America loves it when I leave the country. America’s favorite thing is when Co is gone. We obviously got a terrific response from that show. It reminded me how much I love traveling, and how much I love doing comedy on the road, and how much I love doing remotes. Years ago I did a remote in Finland, I did one in Ireland, and it was fantastic. The comedy is really organic, and the interactions are pure. I thought, Okay, once we did Cuba, let’s keep this going. Sona has been talking about Armenia and her culture for the six years we’ve been together, and the idea just popped in one day: What if I took Sona, my assistant, back to Armenia? And we had this crazy adventure, and we’re really proud of the way it turned out.

So, Sona, was this trip something you’ve been planting in his mind all these years?
Sona Movsesian: You know, if I was, I guess I wasn’t doing it on purpose. But whatever I did, I’m glad I did it. Because I ended up getting a trip to Armenia out of it. If it was subconscious, good for me.

CO: It’s not that subconscious when every third Post-it I get from her says: “Go to Armenia.”

“And bring me with you.”
CO: Yeah, it’s two pink Post-its long. No, she’s talked about it so much, and Sona and I are always joking around about my culture, her culture, how different our cultures are. Then it just became a natural, “Let’s go to Armenia.”  The episode begins with me going to her parents. There’s a massive community here in Los Angeles.

In Glendale.
CO: Yeah, there are pockets everywhere. We decided we’ll start the episode by going to her parents’ house, and me expressing concern that Sona is losing touch with her Armenian roots. I talk to her grandparents and parents, and they have a wish list of things they would like to have happen in Armenia. We accomplished most of what we set out to do.

In the preview material, a lot of the gags had what I’d call a Western bias — kind of poking fun at Armenian culture. The pig or cow feet in a market, for example, or when you’re commenting on the safety precautions, or lack thereof, at an Armenian car rally. But I’d suspect there was a little more to your visit than poking fun in that way.
CO: Oh, no. A lot of the laughs are at my expense, sort of in the flavor of the Cuban episode. When I travel somewhere, obviously, there’s an “idiot abroad” quality. So, yes, I’m a Westerner, and I’m going to this other culture, and I have my biases, but that melts away pretty quickly. There are moments that are extremely powerful, that were unlike anything in the Cuba episode. My favorite moments are the ones where you see me really interacting with the people — where they’re laughing at my attempts to be Armenian. One of my favorite moments is when I appear in an Armenian soap opera, playing a mobster, a tough guy, and I actually have a line in Armenian. That is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. It’s absolutely absurd. There was a Russian director who spoke no English who talked to me at length about my emotional journey, even though I have one line. He spoke to me, seriously, for ten minutes. “You see in your victim yourself; you also see a reflection of what you could have been had your life been different. Your soul feels old even though your mind is still young.” I just want to know: Where’s my mark, and what do I say?

Sona, what did you take away from this trip? Because it’s a little more personal for you to go back to your homeland.
SM: I grew up in Los Angeles, in a really rich Armenian community. I’ve learned a lot about my community throughout my life — the language, the culture, the history. Then to see these things in person was really cathartic. It was emotional, beautiful. Going under these circumstances, too, was great. To go with someone like Conan who’s willing to learn a lot about the culture. The writers did a lot of research before we went. It was, for me, a very profound trip.

This is hardly a staple of comedy, but there was a horrible genocide in Armenia around World War I. As many as a million and a half people were killed. Is that part of what you’ll be reporting back on when you air this segment?
CO: Yes. It is part of the show. I had some people asking me before we went, what about the genocide? “How do you get around that?” I said, “You don’t get around that.” This idea that everything is supposed to be funny is mistaken. When we go to these cultures, I go and I try to find common ground, and a lot of that is through comedy. But I do have a section I’m immensely proud of where that is the focus of the show. What’s interesting to me is when you show it to people, they don’t see a disconnect. They don’t see, “Wait, this part is amusing and warm and fun, and that part’s silly, and then there you are with kids and that’s sweet — but then that part is very somber.” They don’t see a disconnect. People are willing to take it all in as a whole. I am enormously proud of the episode where that is the exclusive focus of the program for the whole act.

But that raises a kind of bigger question: Late-night hosts historically comment on or make jokes about what’s happening in the rest of the world, rather than actually visiting that part of the world and engaging in it. Do you think there’s a larger role that you and people like you can play in getting out in the world and bringing it back to a larger audience?
CO: Two things have happened: The world has gotten a lot smaller than it was even 20 years ago. The globe is shrinking; we’re all in each other’s pockets. I was just in Qatar. I went with the First Lady to do a show at the air base there. And I flew there, did the show, and came back. I was in a completely other part of the world, and I was back doing shows on Monday. That’s how close we are to everything. That’s how much the globe has shrunk. At the same time, while that’s happened, I grew up in a world where there used to be one talk show — Johnny Carson — and there are now 650 talk shows.

And so, yes. I don’t think it’s a responsibility, but I look at it like an opportunity. For me, it just fits well. I love going to different places. I actually think I’m funnier when I have less control — when I jump into situations and cultures where I’m completely unfamiliar. You get really human moments. People like to see me thrown curveballs left and right and not really know what I’m doing. My favorite moments are with these people who speak a different language, and who don’t know who I am, and if I can get them to laugh — and, yes, they’re laughing at me, but that’s extraordinarily satisfying. At the end of the day — between Cuba and this show — you do feel like it’s this weird form of diplomacy now, where if you do it right, you can actually make connections with people.

We did a segment on our show last night — we do a segment called “Fan Corrections.” A fan sent in a commentary where he thought he caught us making a mistake. He’s from Iran, and he watches us on YouTube. I absolutely love that there’s a kid in Tehran who’s laughing at my nonsense, and then we responded to him on the show. It feels like a gear I didn’t even know was possible. I’ve been doing this for 22 years. To be having the most fun that I’ve had in late night here on my 23rd season on the air is pretty extraordinary. And it’s mostly because of these travel shows.

There’s a part of this episode that was really touching to me. I’m in Armenia, in Yerevan. I’m told there are a bunch of fans waiting for me outside, and I’m thinking, Armenian fans? That’s interesting. I go outside — they’re all Syrian refugees. There were about seven or eight teenagers. They fled to Armenia and took shelter there a couple of years ago when things really got rough. It’s heartbreaking. They could not be smarter, funnier, nicer, sharper. They know the show from YouTube. They were citing certain bits. They were so happy to see me that we wound up going out to the Village Square and just dancing around because there was some sort of disco celebration going on in Republic Square in Yerevan. I remembered, I called my wife — it was an 11-hour time difference, but I said, that was one of the great experiences of my life. Connecting with these Syrian refugees who liked the show on YouTube. They never get to see someone they know from YouTube, especially from the West — and then they’re with him. In those moments, I’m so grateful for the internet. It’s so incredible that I can have a connection with people from Syria who are living in Armenia and they just like some bits I do on the show, and we actually meet, and they get to be on the show. That’s magical to me. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.