Ever since Conan O’Brien started doing full remote episodes in countries like Cuba, Korea and Armenia, I’ve hoped that one day he would become the comic version of Anthony Bourdain, traveling the globe and making an ass of himself on every continent in a weekly hour-long show. Now, it looks like my dream might come true. But whether Conan himself shares my vision is something I can only speculate about.
On Thursday, a Turner executive at the Consumer Electronics Show suggested that Conan’s show might go weekly with a stronger emphasis on travel and remote segments. Later that day, another TBS executive issued a statement saying that they have “no plans to change the format or frequency” of his nightly talk show. Did the first executive speak too soon? Or is Conan going to stay nightly after all?
There’s no doubt that a weekly Conan travel show would be good—almost too good, like heroin so pure it kills you. O’Brien is the best in the business at remote segments and, right now, he has almost no competition. What was once a cornerstone of late-night television is all but gone in the post-Letterman/Leno world. Sure, James Corden went to a Starbucks that one time to make an amateur theater production, but these days, late-night comedians on major networks are sticking pretty close to their desks and chasing the instant gratification of viral success instead of producing more evergreen work. It would be a smart move on TBS’s part to have Conan double down on his strengths, especially because none of his competitors seem to share them.
That decision would also be a gift to Conan fans. So far, almost half of his top ten most-viewed segments on Conan have been remotes: riding around with Kevin Hart and Ice Cube in a Lyft, meeting people on Tinder with James Franco, and more. His international segments haven’t gone mega-viral but they perform solidly across the board because they deliver Conan at his contradictory best: a tall, gangly, awkward, and incredibly intelligent guy who also seems to have an irrepressible need to act like a buffoon wherever he goes. There are few pleasures greater than watching a PR person or a business owner try to corral Conan through a segment while he misbehaves, whether it’s him comparing sausage-making to late-night hosting in front of a German butcher or him getting plastered at the Havana Club Rum Museum while a tour guide patiently abides his antics, even singing him “Guantanamera” while he lies on the bar.
It’s not easy to pull those international remote segments off, either. In lesser hands, Conan’s work abroad would come off as mocking or disrespectful, like an American who sneers at other culture’s traditions. But the host always makes sure the joke comes back around to him. When he visited a Buddhist temple in Korea with Steven Yeun, for example, he complained loudly about all of the wind chimes. But Yeun, in Korean, secretly informs the resident monk that Conan “has lots of issues,” and the tone of the segment changes completely, making Conan into more of a pathetic fish-out-of-water than a powerful cultural appropriator invading spaces and traditions that should be closed to him. O’Brien ensures that we’re always laughing at him, not at the culture in which he’s immersed himself. We feel like the local making fun of the tourist, not the other way around. As Conan himself once told Jake Tapper during a CNN interview about his Cuba visit, “When I behave like an idiot, it’s a universal language. I did not want this in any way to be snarky, or mean, or cutting about their culture.”
But would Conan go along with a weekly, travel-heavy Parts Unknown-type show if that’s indeed what the head honchos at TBS have in store for him? On one hand, we have the sentiment he expressed in that same Jake Tapper interview suggesting that he’s ready to break free from Burbank: “I look for any excuse to leave the studio. After 22 years of hosting a show, I will jump at any opportunity. I will shoot a whole show from your basement in D.C. I will go anywhere.” On the other hand, we have the Conan O’Brien from Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop who, when asked whether or not he could have fun without an audience in front of him, pauses for a long time before giving the camera a quizzical look. All performers are needy, of course, but Conan has been especially transparent about the fact that he craves the laughter of a live audience. That’s part of what makes him so endearing and it’s probably why he’s stayed in the late night game for so long, despite the demanding schedule and the major setback he suffered at NBC.
If Conan can cut the studio audience cord, though, he could redefine his career. He spent the first twenty-five years of his career perfecting Letterman-esque zany late-night humor. (When Letterman retired, Conan said, “We will not see a man of his talents and comedic integrity again in our lifetimes, but he was also being modest.” From my perspective, O’Brien has already lived up to his idol.) He could spend the next chapter of his time on television being a wise globetrotting fool, exploring new cultures and bringing different parts of the world together through comedy. As Conan told The Hollywood Reporter, his international work is “almost like a form of diplomacy, where the American goes over and they’re laughing at me.” Devoting his energy to that kind of comedy full-time would only secure his legacy. A few decades from now, Jimmy Fallon will reflect on his career and see an endless stream of completely forgettable celebrity mini-games. Conan could look back on his career and see an entire planet.
He may not have gotten The Tonight Show, but he could still get the last laugh.
May Saunders is a professional dog walker living in Minneapolis and an occasional freelance writer. In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her cat, who does not need to be walked. Follow her on Twitter.