Is there any comedian more willing to be the punch line of his own joke than Conan O’Brien? Whether taking jabs at his own pallid complexion or athletic failing or perceived lack of fame, O’Brien always suffers the brunt of the joke. It’s a comedic template that has served him incredibly well especially in his overseas specials. Too often, the ‘American in an Exotic Locale’ special can feel xenophobic and demeaning, the joke almost always at the expense of a different culture’s ‘other-ness’. But O’Brien – whether visiting Cuba or Seoul or (now) Berlin – inverts this unfortunate trope, the joke always on his own shortcomings. The result: O’Brien’s specials not only work as terrific fish-out of-water comedy but more importantly – as a celebration of different cultures. It’s telling that the best segment in his upcoming Berlin special isn’t even a joke, but a simple interview with Muslim refugees in Germany.
At a press event for Conan in Berlin, O’Brien spoke in depth about the ‘diplomacy’ of comedy, on the pressures to be political and his next in-development special plans. For highlights from the event, read below:
On what was it like shooting the special in Berlin:
Conan O’Brien: What’s interesting – for people who haven’t been gone to Berlin before… what I found very impressive is the degree to which they not only own their twentieth century history, they really go out of their way to constantly remind themselves about it. They own what happened in the twentieth century, their responsibility. Everywhere we went, there weren’t just memorials… there are countless plaques everywhere and they name the person who was taken at the spot and then they say ‘murdered.’ I’ll contrast it with our own country – and our history with Native Americans, we don’t have nearly that amount of ownership over what happened. I had never been to Berlin… but it had been in the news so often with the refugee crisis. Discussions were happening in our own country and they’re still ongoing especially now on how to deal with this problem and this situation. I was very impressed with how cosmopolitan, how multicultural, how ethnically… It’s incredible… I was blown away not just by how much [Berlin] owns their past but how much they embrace a lot of different cultures.
On the process for deciding which sketches to do in Berlin:
Conan O’Brien: …You have a sense feeling of what might be a good place for me to be, what might be a bad place for me to be or a place where nothing interesting is going to happen. You feel it out and you go and you shoot these pieces. Sometimes you’re surprised. In Berlin, we had a bunch of things that we tried and we didn’t know exactly what was going to happen… Me going to a dominatrix seemed like it would be compelling. It turned out to be more compelling because she didn’t treat it like a joke. She wanted to put things inside of me and do things to me and I kept trying to stop her but still have it be comedic and not break my marital vows… Nothing pleasurable happened but I was aware what’s making this funny is that my discomfort is real. So that piece was a pleasant surprise. And then there are gifts. The ‘shuhplattler’ dance – that is one of my favorite things that I’ve done because that man and his two sons we could not have invented them. We didn’t cast them. We just hired these people to teach us. What really works for comedy is when I keep trying to goof around and [the people around] aren’t having it.
On how comedy is diplomacy:
Conan O’Brien: It feels to me that at a time when people may be suspicious of Americans or we might seem arrogant or domineering or xenophobic, I really like this idea of going to other countries. I’ve been really proud of the fact that in Armenia and Cuba and South Korea, there are many times where I’ve been with people who don’t know who I am. They don’t speak English but I get them laughing. And they’re laughing at me. The joke isn’t on them. The joke is that I can’t do it. I try to be respectful of their culture and respectful that they can do these things that I can’t. To me that feels like a form… comedy is diplomacy. You go to these places and you make friends and you show them that you really respect their culture… Obviously every now and then, you run across the odd person who you can have some fun with but I never want it to be I went somewhere and had fun at their expense or laughed at them.
On the accidental nature of his best comedic segments:
Conan O’Brien: We shoot everything and the best stuff is always accidental. The best moments in comedy are accidental. When I was a kid, I watched Carson with my dad. If you look at best of Carson DVDs now, the best moments are something happens and he reacts in the moment. That is always going to be funnier. I’m a reactive comedian. I like it when something happens and then in the moment, I respond to it. People like to see me be disappointed or hurt. They like to see me getting knocked around a little.