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When I interviewed Conan O’Brien in the summer, I asked about the political side of his recent push toward shooting episodes in foreign locations including South Korea, Qatar, Armenia and Cuba.
“The travel shows are very apolitical and a lot of the remotes are very apolitical,” he initially claimed.
Air date: Mar 01, 2017
When I tried insisting there was something inherently political about emphasizing globalism when a major candidate for the presidency was pushing nationalism, he gave in a little.
“I suppose so. I suppose so,” he agreed. “I guess, what I meant was, the idea is to make a connection with those people. When we went to Cuba, it was not an overt political statement. Some people might see it that way, but it was more about just connecting with those people. When we go to Korea, it’s not overtly political, but we will have sections of those shows where we’ll deal with the DMZ, and the horror that is the DMZ, or I’ll take my assistant and we’ll go to a Holocaust Memorial, but I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable saying that my comedy has a point to make. I think it’s hard enough just to try and be funny. I think sometimes, if it makes people think a certain way, that’s their business, but it’s never been my drive, is for my comedy to have an overt message.”
Nine months have passed and the world has changed and O’Brien has changed as well, because I don’t think that he would be able to look at the TBS special Conan Without Borders: Made in Mexico and claim that it was delivered without a message.
Running through the entirety of Conan Without Borders: Made in Mexico was an undercurrent of frustration with the Trump Administration, with its demonizing of Mexican immigration (legal and otherwise), the ongoing plan to erect a massive border wall and the ludicrous notion that either directly, or in indirect ways that would mostly impact the American consumer, Mexico would somehow be paying for this wall. The hourlong special definitely continued O’Brien’s professed goal of using these jaunts to connect with the citizenry of different countries, but from the opening sketch at a border checkpoint to a predictably fiery and obscenity-filled interview with former President Vicente Fox, this was a repudiation of the idea that walling ourselves off from a neighboring country is a civilized response to any concerns, however serious.
Conan has long maintained that when he goes to the foreign countries, his surest path to laughs is making himself the butt of as many jokes as possible and that was the case through Conan Without Borders: Made in Mexico. This is where Conan differentiates himself from lesser comics like the bumbling ghoul on Fox News who went to Chinatown and mocked Chinese people for speaking Chinese.
Whenever he could, O’Brien endeavored to speak at least bits and pieces of Spanish, including an opening monologue in Spanish for a Mexico City audience that seemed both amused and also appreciative. Whatever the quality of his Spanish — he rolls his r’s very well and enunciates clearly — O’Brien attacked the material with gusto and specificity, whether kidding about the slowness of traffic from the Mexico City airport or comparing Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim to the Pringles man. O’Brien’s relief at completing the extended Spanish segment was palpable, as was the crowd approval, even in filmed bits where he tried workshopping the material for less indulgent locals in the street.
It was unclear how well-known O’Brien was as he wandered Mexico City with a donation box “Para El Muro” (“For The Wall”). One person suggested he was Bryan Cranston. Several other people were just interested in taking pictures with him because of his height, which is one of the most consistent things in his travels, that nobody necessarily cares about getting a picture taken with American TV star Conan O’Brien, but many people are curious to get selfies with the oversized American with towering red hair.
O’Brien’s filmed bits for the episode pushed a little heavily into cultural stereotypes, but that didn’t necessarily prevent them from being funny. Like how many American comics need to go to Mexico to appear in telenovelas? I feel like I’ve seen this a few times, even if the only one I immediately remember doing it is Chelsea Handler. At least O’Brien’s appearance, as a cheese merchant on Mi adorable maldicion, was amusing for its droll randomness. O’Brien also wasn’t digging deep to get lucha libre training, but with amiable assistance from luchadore Cassandro, O’Brien’s Crazy Rooster character accentuated the host’s aptitude with his lack of physical aptitude, plus Andy Richter’s El Bebe Malo character was tremendous.
Conan did two English-language interviews that also went over well with the audience, though I’ll never forgive producers for not finding a way to have Mexican boxing superstar Canelo Alvarez on the program for a binational summit of gingers. Diego Luna brought mescal, told a raunchy story about his first onscreen sex scene at the age of 12 and urged viewers, “Ignorance we can fight with love and with understanding.” Vicente Fox brought “No F—ing Wall” boots, an enchilada and repeated several times that Mexicans have brought value to the United States and that his country would not be paying for the wall, speaking directly to the camera several times.
“I think he switched channels very early in the program,” Conan said of our president.
I don’t quite understand why Conan’s visits to a soccer pitch and a quinceanera were trimmed into afterthoughts at the end of the show, other than that they were perhaps less political than what O’Brien wanted to emphasize.
Conan’s global adventures have become his TBS’ show’s greatest piece of differentiation from the dozen other shows in the late night and talk show space. Conan Without Borders: Made in Mexico may not have been the funniest of his trips, but it was the most pointed and message-driven and, for that reason, probably the most urgent.
Conan Without Borders: Made in Mexico premiered on TBS on Wednesday, March 1.
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