The 2016 Emmy race has begun, and Vulture will take a close look at the contenders until voting closes on June 27.
In a year when the Emmy’s Variety Talk Series race has become an even more disparate competition among nightly fake-news programs, weekly political satires, and karaoke-beer-pong-lip-syncers, it’s worth noting that Conan O’Brien is still running a traditional talk show. More than two decades after the former Saturday Night Live writer became the format’s first-ever late-night ambassador to stoned college kids, O’Brien — now in his sixth year as host of TBS’s Conan — is an increasingly rare figure in an ever more convoluted television format. He opens every show with a traditional monologue. He prioritizes the one-on-one interview. He showcases emerging musical and comedic talent at the close of each episode. He’s also stayed true to another signature piece of his showmanship that’s been with him since the early (and then later, tumultuous) NBC days: the remote video.
After making a splash last year with a special episode of Conan set in Cuba (O’Brien and his team were the first such entertainers to film there in 50 years), Team Coco took their global act to not only Armenia last fall, but South Korea earlier this year. Vulture sat down with O’Brien inside his offices on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank to chat about how comedy travels, the reason why more women don’t do his job, and his biggest showbiz hopes “before they put me down.”
What surprised you most about taking the show to South Korea?
Definitely the fan response when we arrived. The airport was a freak show. A delightful surprise! I’m not on TV there, but they watch the show on YouTube and there are weirdly specific things that appeal to them. For example, they really like the segments we do with [perpetually annoyed Conan associate producer] Jordan Schlansky. I don’t know why. Also they’re watching remotes we did from eight, nine years ago from my other shows.
So essentially they don’t care what network you’re on or what year it is.
[Laughs.] True. But funny enough at the airport in Korea — there were like 2,000 people waiting for us at there — there was one person waving a sign that said something like, “Boo, boo NBC!” and I’m like, “What? I haven’t thought about that in years.” It’s like finding a deserted island where they don’t know the war is over.
It’s actually kind of sweet they are rooting for you so intensely from afar.
It’s sweet, but he’d drawn a peacock being butchered. And he was like, “Right? Right?” And I’m like, “No, no. It’s all fine now!” They were all really young too, to the point where you think, “You could all be my children.” The crowd was mostly 17- and 18-year-old girls. It’s funny, they know how to say “Conan,” and a bunch of them speak English, but they also do this thing where they cover their mouths when they laugh. Then they want a selfie and I go, “Yes, yes, okay, let’s take a selfie.” “It’s okay? It’s okay?” “Yes.” Then go like this [makes a sexy pouty face].
A Kardashian face.
[Laughs.] Yes, a Kardashian face. Then they’re right back to giggling. I also was amazed by how intense and sophisticated their social media is compared to ours. But it’s worth noting that the whole trip happened because a fan wrote me this amazing letter from Korea on an SAT prep test. And she said, “I’m not doing my prep test right now because I’m crushing on you so hard. My friends and I all love the show.” And I thought, “Huh, that’s interesting!” So we reached out to her. Also, the size of Seoul blew me away, and how close it is to the DMZ. [The heavily militarized border between North and South Korea]. [Walking Dead actor] Steven Yeun actually went with me to the DMZ. He was the perfect person to bring along because he’s a great improviser. I feel like he will be doing funny at some point, you know, after he gets this massive hit show out of the way.
Last fall for a special episode of Conan, you took your longtime assistant, Sona Movsesian, to visit her family’s homeland of Armenia. What most resonated with you about that culture?
That it’s such a unified people. And now so often in L.A., Armenians come out of their stores to say hi to me. They all know about my trip to Armenia. If I’d gone to Paris, that would have never happened. Even when I was in Seattle recently, someone stopped their car and said, “I just have to tell you, my family’s Armenian and we loved that episode.”
There’s a particularly emotional moment where you visit a memorial for those killed in the 1915 Armenian genocide. What was your approach for integrating this unfunny experience into the show?
Before the trip people asked us, “How are you going to avoid talking about the Armenian genocide?” And I was like, “Well, we can’t. We will deal with it.” One thing I have found over time is that comedy and serious can coexist. I’ve noticed this too with my live audiences — we can have a really funny show, and then bring someone out and get into a real conversation about something, and people quiet down and listen. They appreciate it. I think they know they’re getting good calories on some level.
It’s also comforting in a way for fans to know you don’t exist in a bubble. You’ve been known to skip your monologue to honor someone who’s passed away or acknowledge a sad event in the world. If you didn’t do that, people would probably wonder, does this guy not know what’s going on outside his studio?
Right. “Something’s wrong with him. He’s hiding.” What also surprised me about the Armenia show was how it has had such a long, sustained impact. I took my family on a ski vacation in Park City, Utah, several months after the episode aired. I walked into a steam room and there were like nine 70-year-old men shouting, “Conan! You went to Armenia!” And I’m looking down at nine 70-year-old Armenian penises thinking, “Please don’t get too excited. This is not my idea of a holiday.”
Actually in some cultures, that’s the mark of a wonderful holiday.
[Laughs.] True. But I have to say the goal going in with all these trips is always humility. I want them to laugh at me. I want the kids in the tae kwon do class in Seoul to be laughing at me. I want the monk to be laughing at me. I want to try to dance and have girls laugh at me. A knock on the United States has long been that we’re arrogant, that we think we can fix everything. So this sense of humility can almost serve as a kind of diplomacy, too.
Bob Hope is someone who tapped into that same ethos and became a de facto American ambassador with his USO shows.
Yes, and Mark Twain, too. I always liked that when Twain traveled in Europe, he saw himself as the fish out of water. He was the rube. In the same way, I always just want the comedy to be good and never get laughs at others’ expense. And by the way, all this stuff has helped me exercise my base comedy obsessions, like doing small parts in TV shows. I’ve now been in an Armenian soap opera, a Korean soap opera, and a K-pop video. There is also a presentation wherever we go. “Okay, we are at a doorknob factory and they would like to give you the doorknob that they make." It happened in Cuba, when went to Qatar with the First Lady, in Korea, and it happened in Armenia. We’re realizing we have to now put time on the schedule for presentations. “We would now like to give you a fig with a walnut inside. But first, some speeches!”
It’s meaningful to some degree for you to be a respectful visitor to other countries in the current election season, seeing as there’s a candidate running for president whose platform is largely about not welcoming visitors to the U.S.
Oh, that’s all going to change. He just did all that to get the nomination! He’s invulnerable. I’ve actually challenged my writers: Think of things he could do that would cost him in the polls. What is the thing he would do that would really cost him?
No, because then it’s just like, “Hey, people murder sometimes!”
Well Trump certainly has been a boon for all of you. You’re potentially looking at eight years of endless jokes.
Yeah. I’m voting for him. All talk-show hosts are voting for him!
Do you watch your competition?
I don’t. I never have. It’s the least relaxing thing in the world to me. I’m either thinking, “Oh, good luck with that guest! Let’s see how you do here, pal.” Or I’ll think, “Okay, that it isn’t for me, but good for them.”
Bits like “Carpool Karaoke” or “Lip-Sync Battle” just aren’t on-brand for you.
No. I want to be a good monologist. I want to be a good improviser. I want to be a good comedy editor. I want to be good with the audience and make them a character. I want to be a good interviewer.
It’s a skill that’s becoming increasingly more difficult to pull off and rare in late night.
Yes. I think it’s an art. It’s what I learned from studying Johnny Carson. You look back at his body of work and there were so many organic moments. When I think about moments I’ve had that have done well, they’re also the organic moments. Those that weren’t planned. For example, I didn’t know that the woman teaching me Korean would be that uptight about me trying to get her to rub my nipple with the stick. I’m just trying to have as many of those moments as I can before I’m put to sleep. Before they put me down.
Samantha Bee is now your programming neighbor on Monday nights on TBS. Her show is more of the satirical-news show ilk, but did you offer her any advice about getting into the late-night space?
Sometimes you meet people who you can tell need advice. Samantha doesn’t need my advice. She is so smart and has such a good work ethic. You got the sense even before her show went air, “Oh, she knows exactly what she’s doing.” I’d love to say that she came to me in tears, and I told her exactly how it’s all done. But no, I think I’ve come to her in tears several times.
Chelsea Handler also recently returned to the talk-show format with a streaming show on Netflix. But Wanda Sykes was actually the last woman to do a traditional late-night show on a major network, and it failed. Why aren’t more women doing this job?
Stupidity. There’s no excuse for it, and it’s just stupid. What happens in late night is a very obvious example, but you can widen the whole thing out and look at inequality in business across the board, among CEOs …
Presidential races, yes. I sense that it’s this old Berlin Wall-type thing that’s teetering and going to crumble overnight. There are so many hilariously funny women who could have a late-night show if they wanted one. By the way, Tina Fey doesn’t need a late-night show. Amy Poehler doesn’t need one. Amy Schumer certainly doesn’t need one. The list goes on and on and on. There have been a lot of new late-night hosts appointed in the last couple of years, and you feel like any of those could easily have been a woman. If it’s any consolation, my testosterone level has been falling rapidly for years.
Well, in the meantime, are there other countries you want to visit for the show? How do you know when a culture is the right fit for your comedy?
I’ve long been obsessed with Russians, so Russia for sure. Mostly I want to make sure I don’t go to a place that just has nice hotels. I know I’ve gone to a good country when I’ve never gotten a second to relax. It all started with our Cuba trip last year, which was such a perfect time. We ducked in before anyone else had filmed there. Since then, we’ve made really good choices. Now it’s about intuitively figuring out through doing a lot of research: What is the right place for me? Who’s going to be there when my parachute doesn’t work and help me land?
I imagine there is a lot of attention paid to cultural sensitivities. Figuring out what antics and jokes would be appropriate in, say, Africa or Arabic countries?
Exactly. You want to go somewhere where they’re in the power position. I’m not in the power position. They’re teaching me. It’s my struggle.
Whether it’s the language, dance, food, martial arts …
And medical procedures. These trips are going to quickly morph into me just having medical procedures.
Well, there is a lot cheap plastic surgery to be found abroad.
“Conan goes to Sweden for more plastic surgery.” Wait, but he was there three times last year!
At this point in your career, 23 years since you first debuted in late night, how has your job gotten easier and how has it become more difficult?
One thing that’s gotten easier is that when you do something good, people really notice. It gets to people who probably wouldn’t even have watched a late-night talk show before, because they can watch it in three minutes on their iPad. It used to be there was a certain kind of “Conan person” who was up at 12:30 a.m. or 11:30 p.m. I was their friend. I have so many people who say, “You got me through college” or “You got me through high school.” They developed a relationship with me that stuck through the highs and lows. But it’s harder now to get people to pay attention to any one show. There’s so much noise. Before it was so easy! What else are you going to watch at 11:35 at night? We were a night-light for people. Now if I can’t sleep, I can start binge-watching Silicon Valley or the director’s cut of Laurence of Arabia. The choices are stunning. We don’t have a captive audience anymore. But if I do something and it resonates, people seem to find it. Some watch it on their phone. Some may see it in six months. In a world where everything’s being diced up, it’s very hard to see these moments as an organic whole. It’s very analogous to the music business. People used to put a lot of thought into the order of the tracks on an album. Now no one cares about that because there’s no such thing as an album anymore. You can bitch about it if you want. I choose not to. I choose to say it’s just different, and there’s a big advantage to it.
But the people who are watching your show live in studio are still getting the organic variety-show experience.
Yes. And that’s why God is in the details. That’s my belief. I had a priest tell me once, “Look, this is my religion. I really believe in it. But if it’s not true, and I die and there is no one up there, I’ll still have lived my life as if there were and I’ll be proud of that.” It sounds like a very heavy thing, but I thought, “That’s kind of how I approach comedy.” I’m not saying we don’t fail. We have bad days, bad weeks, good times when it’s all hitting, and times when it’s not. We have to trust that people will notice. If they don’t, I’m still okay with that. We’re all still playing in an organic way. I don’t want to say we’re “growing old gracefully,” but one thing I’ve been very lucky about is that when I’m completely myself and acting silly, 18-year-olds seem to like it. We have a very young core. And they’re not judgmental about the fact that I’m not 27. I’m very kid-like but never pretend not to be who I am. I make a lot of jokes about having voted for Eisenhower.
You’re like McConaughey in Dazed and Confused: You’re getting older and your fans stay the same.
Exactly. I’ll take that. I have to make sure I’m having fun and putting something out there that I believe in. As long as I’m doing that and no one’s getting hurt, then great.
Unless it’s Jordan Schlansky.
Yeah, exactly. That fucker.