Updated with video: Conan O’Brien is a rare late-night host who seems to eschew politics yet inserts himself into some significant political stories.
The TBS star made headlines in February 2015 when he and a small crew became the first American late-night show to film in Cuba since the U.S. embargo on that country began in 1962. Conan has since followed that road trip with a visit to South (and, very briefly, North) Korea, to Qatar with First Lady Michelle Obama, and to Armenia.
Tonight, TBS airs his latest road trip, Conan Without Borders: Berlin, at 10 PM ET/PT.
Conan’s Cuba visit came in the thick of President Barack Obama’s controversial
efforts to normalize relations with that island nation. Similarly, the show’s Berlin visit is debuting as our country gets ready to swear in a new president elected on an isolationist platform, and it premieres the same week German Chancellor Angela Merkel advocated for a ban on full-face veils in her country, where she hopes to score another four-year term despite far-right forces having made some of their most significant gains since World War II. Now, as with Cuba, O’Brien says he kept the purpose of his visit simple: Meet the people, play the clown, make friends.
“I’ve got election fatigue; I think a lot of people do,” he told Deadline in a phone interview this week. “And every day since [the election] we’ve been bombarded with, ‘Did our President-elect tweet? Is there a controversial appointment happening?’ and people fighting and arguing. There is something really nice about going to a completely different culture and exploring it … getting in touch with universal themes of comedy that don’t have anything to do with red state/blue state/who did you vote for.
“It’s fun to be an expat,” he continued. “It’s the kind of comedy that could still be funny if you watched it in six years. The funny parts will still be funny because they are not time-specific; there are no Mike Pence jokes or Rudy Giuliani jokes. No one will need a glossary of terms. It’s my kind of comedy. The stuff has a universality to it. It’s about human beings. And that’s what makes me happy right now.”
O’Brien opens his special with a quick visit to what’s left of the Berlin Wall. He buys an “Amish sex toy” at a flea market from a guy who mistakes him for David Letterman. He eats something called Slaughter Plate at a beer hall, where he drinks a stein of beer he’s told equals 45 Bud Lites, and learns a drinking song that, loosely translated, is called “One More Will Fit Inside You,” which he sings with some Vietnamese tourists. He hits 142 mph on the famed Autobahn, driving the kind of BMW sports car you would drop your third wife off at school in.
Twin brothers and their tight-lipped father teach him how to wear lederhosen while performing traditional Bavarian face-slapping/ass-patting dances with sidekick Andy Richter:
A dominatrix, who calls herself Lady Velvet Steel and says she is an expert in hand spanking, wants to show him what she can do but, the White Anaconda explains, he’s married; “so no marks,” Lady VS surmises. She settles for applying binder clips to a blindfolded O’Brien’s nipples, then binding his mouth with something the TBS Decency Police decided to pixelate. (“I’m hoping this is not what I think it is – maybe a chess piece?” the blindfolded host guesses, fondling the protuberance. “A rook? No, that’s a bishop’s hat.”):
In other segments, O’Brien learns how sausage is made and encounters an obsessive super-fan who drove more than three hours to hand him a list of factual errors he’s made on his TBS late-night show.
The closest O’Brien comes to politicizing is during a segment at the Berlin-Tempelhof Airport, where he meets some young men from Palestine, Syria and Afghanistan who are among 1,500 refugees living in the airport. They talk to him about studying German and their hopes of going home and laugh at the American’s utter lack of talent for soccer and badminton:
“Talking to these kids, they made it very clear that they want to go home,” O’Brien said. “Their goal is not to go to America and steal our jobs. They want to go back to their country but can’t right now because they’ll get killed.”
O’Brien seems content with the late-night niche he’s carved out for himself. “The fact that I have come to a point in my career and stumbled on it, it’s kind of life-saving for me,” he explained.
“There is always the danger of burnout,” he said of the daily late-night hosting grind. “It’s a full-time job, and I take it seriously and work very intensely at it all the time.” But, he added, “I’m in my 24th season as host; I started young, and I’ve got a lot of miles on the odometer. But I’m having creatively some of the most fun moments of my career.”