There’s a moment in “Conan in Armenia” where late-night host Conan O’Brien and his assistant Sona Movsesian catch a glimpse of Mt. Ararat against the horizon. They didn’t know if they would see the mountain, the legendary final stop for Noah’s ark, and when they do, it’s a solemn moment. Mt. Ararat is a powerful symbol for the Armenian people and, while one might be able to see it on a clear day, it is just out of reach for Armenians, as it stands across the Turkish border. Conan explains that Mt. Ararat “used to be part of Armenia, now it’s not.” Sona is silent as she stares into the distance.
The whole situation is complicated, but that’s the case for Armenia in general. The modern nation has only existed since the fall of the Soviet Union, but the history of Armenia is ancient. That Sona proudly identifies as Armenian, but has never visited the country before this trip is understandable. Like Sona, I’m of Armenian descent, but have never traveled to the country and call Los Angeles home. For those of us who share this heritage, Armenia is a destination, maybe not to live, but definitely to visit. It is a physical homeland for a people who were nearly wiped off the earth during the 1915 Genocide.
For reasons I’ll never fully understand, the country is not a destination for people who aren’t part of the diaspora; travel hosts like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern don’t have Armenia episodes, but reality star Kim Kardashian does. That Conan O’Brien chose to take Sona to Armenia is a big deal for those of us are Armenian, something my own family discussed over a San Fernando Valley Thanksgiving table while eating turkey and pilaf. But it also made for great television that could appeal to anyone.
“Conan in Armenia” essentially tells two, intertwined stories. There’s the story of Conan, who is entering both a culture and a place that is foreign to him, and the story of Sona, who has grown up with the culture, but hasn’t been to the place of its origins. Much of the episode plays out like a buddy comedy—Conan goofs off, Sona plays it straight, but gets a few deadpan zingers in here and there. They go on a series of very short adventures. Conan takes Sona to a matchmaker to find an Armenian husband. The two try to work as shepherds. They meet up with Armenian fans who were originally from Syria, but relocated because of the war. They drink vodka and learn how to make the thin, flat bread called lavash.
Throughout the episode, we get a wonderful glimpse of Armenia and, primarily, its capital Yerevan. We see the Yerevan Day celebrations, check out Conan on the set of an Armenian soap opera, and hear a lot of the language. Conan interacts with people young and old who are more than happy to get in on the gags with him. But, it all goes far beyond jokes about how Conan doesn’t understand the language and is a silly dancer. While Conan seems to struggle with simply greeting people in Armenian at the beginning of the episode, later on, he seems to be settling in fine. As Conan and Sona smoke a hookah, Conan remarks, “shad merci,” a slang-y way of saying “thanks a lot.” The premise of the episode is to help get Sona in touch with her roots, but it’s clear that Conan has a lot of love for Armenia too.
Near the end of the episode, Conan and Sona visit the Armenian Genocide memorial. Conan briefly explains the Genocide, which happened a century ago, before the camera follows Sona through the memorial. Sona tears up as she shares the story of her grandparents and finds the name of her family’s home village carved in stone. This segment is crucial for contextualizing the trip. It explains why there is a diaspora, and why a trip to Armenia is something of a pilgrimage for ethnic Armenians across the globe.
In the end, “Conan in Armenia” is more than just comedy abroad. It’s a story of friendship and empathy set in a country that gets very little exposure on American television.
Liz Ohanesian writes about pop culture from her base in Los Angeles. For updates, follow her on Twitter or Facebook.