conan o'brien

Conan O'Brien's new travel series, Conan O'Brien Must Go, is streaming on Max

Scott Council
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Fill 1
April 26, 2024

Conan O'Brien Brings the Fun (and the Funny)

With a new Max travel series inspired by his popular podcast, O'Brien reflects on an ever-evolving comedy career.

Sure, he's a popular podcaster, a comic with a throng of fans — some quite famous in their own right — and an extremely funny TV writer who somehow became one of the lomgest-running, most admired talk-show hosts ever. But what Conan O'Brien really is — and he'll tell you this himself — is a conection junkie.

"I really do like connecting with people," he says. "You can see it in the podcast." He's referring to Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend, and through it, he has found plenty of friends. The podcast has been embraced so enthusiastically since its 2018 launch that, in 2022, he sold it and his production company, Team Coco, to Sirius XM for $150 million.

The money isn't what's important to him, though. ... Well, maybe it's a little important. But really, it's the search for connection.

"If I get a good riff going, I get a contact high," he says.

"I can't tell you how many times I've been stopped by people with their earbuds in. They'll say, 'I'm listening to you talk to Bill Hader while I'm shopping at Safeway.' I get an erotic thrill from the whole thing."

These days, O'Brien is getting his thrills in locations more exotic than grocery stores. He is back on television with Conan O'Brien Must Go, an irreverent four-part travel series on Max, spawned from his podcast. The program takes him to Norway, Thailand, Argentina and the fount of his forebears, Ireland. It's like the talk-show travel segments he did on his TBS series Conan (which were later spun off as a collection of specials called Conan Without Borders), but with high production values and even higher shots — thanks to drone footage.

In each episode, O'Brien visits fans he's met via his podcast — callers who'd casually (and often jokingly) told him to drop by if he were ever in their neck of the woods. Now, he does just that.

In Norway, O'Brien surprises an aspiring rapper, whose lack of housekeeping skills he mocks mercilessly. How long have those potatoes been in that drawer? Later, he meets up with a salmon farmer with whom he quickly realizes he has absolutely no chemistry whatsoever. Their utter lack of rapport is riotous.

Along the way, the lanky comedian dresses up as a crimson-bearded Viking named Conan the Red and dons a traditional Norwegian costume, only to be berated by a stranger on the street who tells him (loosely translated) that he looks like a moron who'll never get laid. "The name of the show could be, 'Watch People Kick the Shit Out of Conan O'Brien,'" the comedian says.

Watch the exclusive interview with Conan during the emmy cover shoot.

Described in the opening credits (narrated by filmmaker Werner Herzog) as a cultural "defiler," O'Brien appears no more dignified on a Thai river, sitting in a flat-bottomed boat, wearing a knit hat and squeezing a screaming rubber chicken. He's equally ludicrous upon the green grass of Eire and on the Argentine pampas, where he dons a stick-on mustache and gaucho garb with his perennially deadpan associate producer Jordan Schlansky.

Even when the locals don't completely comprehend what he's saying, they're usually amused.

"He definitely has a body built for comedy," Schlansky says.

It's hard to take offense when O'Brien says something awful, which he frequently does on Conan O'Brien Must Go, because even at 61, he remains as boyish and playful as ever. In a Buddhist temple, he tells an exasperated tour guide, "This must have taken months to build!" (It took several hundred years.) Homer Simpson, in whose mouth O'Brien put words when writing for The Simpsons early in his career, couldn't have put it worse. "I love to play the idiot," he says.

"He's a goofball," says Must Go executive producer Jeff Ross, who's been with O'Brien since his Late Show days. "But an intellectual goofball."

Certainly, he's said worse. O'Brien once told his assistant, Sona Movsesian, while she was on the phone with her Armenian grandmother, "You sound like you're arguing with Dracula." Instead of reporting him to H.R., she realized that was "the first indication that I had found my new home." (The two eventually did visit H.R. to discuss their dysfunctional relationship for a Conan segment, which has since been viewed more than 13 million times on YouTube.) Today, she is not only O'Brien's assistant (more so in name than actual duties) but his podcast cohost.

Like Kumail Nanjiani, Nick Kroll, Nikki Glaser, Mindy Kaling, John Krasinski and Hader — just a handful of the comedians and actors who have professed O'Brien's influence over their careers — Movsesian considers her boss a "comedy god" for her generation. Even after years of working together, she says, "I'm constantly shocked by the things that man's warped brain comes up with. I don't know whether it's a gift or if he's defective in some way, but it's frightening. He always chooses just the right words to make everything an extra bit funnier."

Speaking of which ... wandering around his production offices, through corridors lined with pictures of O'Brien with megastars like Paul McCartney (O'Brien, an amateur guitar player, is a huge Beatles fan), Harrison Ford and Hillary Clinton, he alternates between stealing French fries from his audio engineer and making merriment with anyone who'll listen. (Also on the wall is a banner that reads, "THERE WAS TALK OF GERBILS," a reference to a 1996 Late Night appearance by Mickey Rooney, who, when trying to conjure the name Richard Gere, offered up the rodent reference instead. The phrase from the story, recounted on the podcast, has become the battle cry of any Conan fan who sees the comedian on the street and wishes to identify themself as a listener.)

"How tall are you?" a stylist asks. "I'm six-foot-four, but if the hair is up, seven-foot-two." At another moment, O'Brien looks down at the outfit he's just slipped into for a photo shoot and jokes, "It's down to me and one other guy. Joaquin something."

Then, as the photographer snaps away, he looks straight into an infinity mirror and models his heart out. "I'm bringing the same energy that William Shatner brings to a margarine commercial!" he declares. "Do that again!" the shooter implores. O'Brien shouts back, "I'm not doing anything. That's just a thousand years of Gaelic depression!"

To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine here.

This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, issue #5, 2024, under the title "Here Comes the Fun."

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