“I take that as a compliment. The ‘American idiot abroad’ is an invention Mark Twain was doing in the 19th century. The American being out-of-place and out-of-sorts and being the butt of the joke is part of a long, rich American tradition of humor,” says Conan O’Brien when talking to us about the special “Conan” episode filmed on location in Cuba earlier this year (watch our full conversation below). He adds, “When you send someone like me there, who is not afraid to look silly and the joke to be on me, it’s actually a sweet message. It almost feels like a form of diplomacy.”
O’Brien earned raves for the episode which aired in early March during his regular TBS time slot. He and his producers got the idea after the U.S. government opened up restrictions on visiting Cuba. He reveals that after President Barack Obama made the announcement, “we decided let’s make this happen quickly. Let’s do it, because I think people are going to be broadcasting from Cuba left and right. Once ‘The View’ is in Cuba, we know the fun is over.”
He adds that it was a real “guerrilla” effort bringing just a handful of people and that “we realized no one had done it since Jack Paar had taken ‘The Tonight Show’ to Cuba in 1960. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if instead of interviewing celebrities, I jumped into part of the culture, met the people, and really tried to make friends?”
The four days of shooting led to segments where O’Brien learned to dance, rolled cigars, took a Spanish-language class, drank lots of Havana Club rum, commented on the old buildings, took a crazy cab ride, and showed off his white-linen suit and panama hat.
With David Letterman‘s recent retirement, O’Brien is now the longest-serving late night host on the air. Having replaced Letterman on NBC’s “Late Night” in 1993, he has now worked 22 years on the late shift. He is a three-time Emmy Award winner: as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” (1989), a writer for his own show (2007), and for interactive programming with TeamCoco (2012). The Cuba visit will be the episode submission to Emmy judges this summer if “Conan” is nominated again.
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