Cannes Lions: Conan O'Brien Talks Switch to Shorter Format, Viral Videos and SPAM

Conan O'Brien_Cannes Lions Festival - Getty - H 2018
Dominique Charriau/Getty Images for Cannes Lions

"I’m more excited by the work I’m doing now than I have ever been," the TBS host said of his travel segments and other viral videos.

Conan O’Brien and Shaquille O’Neal livened up the Cannes Lions crowd after what had been a lackluster morning with their presentation Wednesday afternon.

The duo’s appearance onstage was a reminder of the sheer power of the celebrity — the Palais’ enormous Lumiere theater was nearly at capacity and fans literally stormed the stage to beg for selfies and autographs. It was a rare burst of excitement this Cannes Lions, in a week relatively lacking in other A-Listers.

The two were there to talk up the power of personal brand (and of course, their Turner shows) in a presentation that quickly descended into jokes about shopping for women’s underwear, hand freckles and SPAM. (For the record, O’Neal hates the mystery meat.) The jokes, instigated by O'Neal, mostly involved swimming attire suitable for the South of France. You get the idea.

On a more serious note, O’Brien said that social media has been his savior, particularly as he moved shows and networks. He cited his "ride along" videos with Ice Cube, which have been viewed more than 100 million times, as one example of its success for him. His social media has never been planned, he said, with O’Brien getting by on what he calls his “Field of Dreams philosophy” — if you film it, they will come.

“I’ve been doing this 25 years now, and I’m more excited by the work I’m doing now than I have ever been,” he said.

His travel videos have a lot to do with that newfound joy, and the switch to a half-hour show will give him more time to concentrate on this content. 

“It’s a good way for people to see an American, the American is the butt of the joke and there is a sweetness to it, and they like it,” he said. “And that is being a kind of goodwill ambassador.”

It is easier to maneuver the shorter version of the show, he said: “One of the things I’m am most happy about in this recent incarnation of my show is that it is much more agile than the old show,” he said. “We can make decisions quickly and then just go do it.”

For example, when President Trump made comments in the media about Haiti, O'Brien's cast and crew was on the ground just three days later. “We wanted to give the Hatians a voice and didn’t want it to be overtly political all the time, so a lot of it was all about discovery.”

That became part of the national conversation in way that old Hollywood hosts of old could never achieve. “The late-night television I grew up with was never a conversation — you’re the passive recipient of what a great host is telling you. Those days are over.”