Conan O’Brien Goes the Distance to Make You Laugh in ‘Conan O’Brien Must Go’

The comedy travel genre is definitely overstuffed. This one is committed to the bit — to all the bits
Conan O’Brien Goes the Distance to Make You Laugh in ‘Conan O’Brien Must Go’

TV travel shows used to be the domain of people like Rick Steves — experts in the field who’d written multiple best-selling guidebooks. Now, there’s a travel show for your every mood, interest and favorite celebrity. In the Long Way franchise, Ewan McGregor shows you the world from his motorcycle. The Wine Show features James Purefoy, Dominic West and Matthews Goode and Rhys touring European vineyards. Zac Efron uses his Netflix series Down to Earth to educate viewers on wellness and eco-consciousness. 

Even travel shows hosted by celebrity comedians have become their own vertical: Jack Whitehall (and his dad), Phil Rosenthal, Romesh Ranganathan, Karl Pilkington, Sue Perkins, Michael Palin, Eugene Levy, Bert Kreischer, Russell Howard (and his mom), Jon Gabrus and Adam Pally, Billy Connolly, Richard Ayoade and Anthony Anderson (and his mom) are just a few stars who’ve convinced TV executives to pay for their jetsetting. 

Next week, Max adds Conan O’Brien Must Go to the list. O’Brien knows you have a choice in comedic travel hosts, and differentiates himself from the pack with seemingly inexhaustible showmanship.

Since his time hosting Late Night in the 1990s and aughts, O’Brien’s had a gift for remotes, segments in which he leaves the studio and goofs around with regular people in the real world: trying to sell his 1992 Ford Taurusvisiting a hairstyling school or (still a favorite of mine) playing baseball with historical re-enactors.

O’Brien’s remotes continued through Conan, on TBS, eventually spinning off into a series of primetime specials: In Conan Without Borders, viewers followed O’Brien to such far-flung locations as Mexico, Berlin, Cuba and the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Celebrity guests occasionally appear — Ghanaian-American Sam Richardson joins O’Brien on his visit to Ghana — but the purpose is mostly to show O’Brien exploring, learning, and above all, goofing around. 

When, in late 2020, O’Brien announced that he would be ending his TBS talk show, the stated plan was for O’Brien to host a weekly variety show on the platform that was then known as HBO Max. There wasn’t much news about that for a while, which, fair enough, there were extenuating circumstances that would keep performers out of TV studios and away from live audiences. But it took two years after the end of Conan for his production company, Conaco, to announce that Conan O’Brien Must Go would be his next TV project; another year after that, it will finally premiere all four episodes of its first season, on the platform now known as Max, next Thursday. 

Apparently this thing has been sitting in the can for a while. In the fourth episode, set in Ireland, O’Brien jokes in a voiceover about planning a trip to his family’s ancestral home and getting a “hapless streaming service” to pay for it. Smash cut to the old purple HBO Max splash screen, which hasn’t been in use since last May. For all the drive the series title connotes, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of urgency to get it to viewers.

In the first episode, we see O’Brien in the studio where he tapes his podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend. A fan named Jarle Zooms in from Norway, tells O’Brien a little about his life, and enjoys a light roasting from his hero. One cut later, O’Brien is outside Jarle’s apartment in Bergen, buzzing a shocked Jarle to come down to the street. It is, of course, possible that Jarle has been prepped for O’Brien and his crew to descend on his home, but Jarle’s astonished “I’m in my goddamn Crocs over here!” and kitchen drawer full of sprouted potatoes bespeak a man who was not expecting company. 

O’Brien goes on to clown around a recreation of a Viking village and speak to a sex therapist about Norwegian dating habits (“sex before coffee” is typical). Eventually, he journeys to Lofoten to meet another fan: fish farmer Kai, who is either nervous or naturally taciturn, and who freezes when O’Brien ambushes him. The edit leaves in their awkward first meeting, O’Brien noting, “Kai, we have zero chemistry. What are we gonna do?” 

What Kai’s gonna do is watch O’Brien put on a Gorton’s fisherman costume, with a hook in place of his left hand, and say farewell to the “family” he hired to see him off — bequeathing his hook to his “son” — before setting out to sea with Kai. It doesn’t really matter if the civilians O’Brien draws into his nonsense are adept at playing along; O’Brien’s got enough energy and commitment to perform all the necessary parts of any on-camera interaction all by himself.

In the next two episodes — in which O’Brien travels to Argentina and Thailand — the best moments are ones O’Brien and his team could never predict. Argentinian portrait artist (and fan) Sebastian introduces O’Brien to his sons; the younger, Santiago, is apparently not a fan, or at least not impressed, and needles O’Brien so relentlessly that O’Brien ends up riffing about Santiago’s serial-killer tendencies and telling Sebastian, “You’ve done a terrible job. These are the worst children I’ve ever talked to.” In Thailand, O’Brien asks Pong, his guide at a Buddhist temple, if there’s anything he can do to avoid reincarnation. Pong: “Commit suicide, maybe.” At an animation studio in Bangkok, O’Brien gets a tour from director Thum. When she explains that she’s not introducing him to more of her staffers because they don’t speak English, she yanks one away from his computer and tells O’Brien, “You can ask him about animation.” O’Brien: “I could. Or I could ask him if he feels safe here.” 

I realize you can’t make a nonfiction show like this without planning anything. But generally, the more extensively produced segments suffer for being overwrought, compared to the lightness and ease we see when O’Brien is just joking around in conversation. It’s clear not only that this is a person who is naturally funny, but that he maybe is constitutionally unable to turn it off. In some segments, it feels like so much hassle went into putting O’Brien in a funny costume or setting up a high-concept scenario that no one could bear to cut it even when the end result is only a 5 out of 10 — for example, in Ireland, where O’Brien visits a lighthouse and delivers his take on Willem Dafoe in Robert Eggers’s 2019 movie The Lighthouse (a reference that also might have been more timely when the episode was actually conceived). If the show gets a second season, a heavier hand on the edit would really make the episodes zip. 

O’Brien’s obviously very successful as a podcast host and producer, but you may have forgotten since Conan went off the air that he’s always been a physical comedian. Merely seeing him tower over usually flummoxed locals in various international locations is a sight gag in itself, never mind when he tries his first black pudding and rolls around on the floor in a butcher’s shop feigning ecstasy, or glides through Thai canal shops wearing a rooster cap, squeaking a rubber chicken. 

Is the comedy travel genre overstuffed? Sure. But that just means we need to weed out the titles where the hosts seem like — or straight-up state, as Eugene Levy does with the title of his AppleTV+ show, The Reluctant Traveler — they’d rather be doing something else. O’Brien, as always, sells every joke like the rent is due. In this show, there’s not one thing reluctant about him.


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