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'Conan O'Brien Must Go' is side-splitting evidence of life beyond late night TV

Conan O'Brien dresses as a Viking in Norway.
Conan O'Brien dresses as a Viking in Norway.

To be honest, when I first heard Conan O'Brien was ending his TV talk show in 2021, I assumed news that he might turn to variety shows and online programs to continue his career was some combination of face-saving and wishful thinking.

But after watching the four episodes of his new Max series Conan O'Brien Must Go, it's now obvious — even to a thickheaded critic like me — that leaving late night TV really was liberating for O'Brien. He's leveraged his unique sensibility into several different podcasts, a deal with Sirius XM, specials featuring other stand-up comics and now this travel series for Max — which resembles jokey specials he did for cable channel TBS back in the day.

And as the late night TV genre crumbles under sagging viewership and the decline of traditional media, O'Brien's renaissance also provides an example for the future — where fertile comedy minds and talented performers can spread their work over a much larger canvas.

Learning a lesson from 'Hot Ones'

O'Brien already made a splash recently with his brilliantly maniacal appearanceon the interview-while-eating-hot-wings show Hot Ones, slobbering over hot sauces while claiming, as he was checked over by a fake doctor, that "I'm fine! I'm perfectly f*****g fine!"

This is the place where O'Brien shines — he's called it "this strange phantom intersection between smart and stupid" — and it's on full, freakish, super silly display in every episode of Conan O'Brien Must Go.

The conceit of the show is pretty simple. O'Brien heads overseas to visit average folks in Norway, Argentina, Thailand and Ireland who had once Zoomed in to speak with him on the podcast Conan O'Brien Needs a Fan. Sometimes the visits seem like a surprise — he catches one aspiring Norwegian rapper in shorts and Crocs after popping up on his doorstep — and others seem a bit more planned, including his visit to a radio show with about four listeners in Buenos Aires.

Each episode begins with a solemn monologue which sounds like it is delivered by the film world's most eccentric voice, German filmmaker and actor Werner Herzog (he's not credited in the show and when asked, a publicist at Max shared a quote from O'Brien: "I can neither confirm nor deny the voice in question.")

The torturous accent by "Herzog" makes every line sound absurdly hilarious, describing O'Brien as "the defiler ... with dull, tiny eyes ... the eyes of a crudely painted doll ... he scavenges in distant lands, uninvited, fueled by a bottomless hunger for recognition and the occasional selfie."

Now that's smart. And oh so stupid.

A funhouse mirror version of a travel show

O'Brien performs onstage with a fan in Norway
/ Conaco/Max
O'Brien performs onstage with a fan in Norway

Fans of O'Brien's Conan Without Borders specials on TBSalready know what his style is when he tackles a travel show — throwing himself into outrageous reactions and situations while working his quirky brand of improvised conversations with hapless bystanders.

In the Max series Conan O'Brien Must Go, that includes O'Brien offering screechy vocals onstage during a performance of a Norwegian emo/rap band. Or asking provocative questions of a couple therapist/sex expert. Or getting beat up in a "fight" with a 10-year-old boy in a bar.

It's all an excuse for O'Brien to unleash his energetic wit, taste for silly absurdity and skill at drawing laughs from sympathetic — if often befuddled — strangers. Whether you enjoy this special will depend on how you feel about O'Brien's style, which can feel a bit like the world's best class clown doing everything possible to make you crack a smile.

(Rent a family in Norway so they can say goodbye when he gets on a SeaCraft? Check. Get local artists to paint a mural of O'Brien, a soccer star and The Pope on the side of a building in Argentina? Double check.)

But what amazes in a larger sense is how O'Brien has turned his sensibility into a comedy brand to fuel work on many different platforms. And, at age 60, with more than 30 years as a comedy star, he's been released from the shackles of any genre to shine wherever he chooses — whether it's an episode of Hot Ones or a streaming service which sometimes looks like a collision between True Detective and 90 Day Fiancé.

Leaving late night TV as late night left him

I'm old enough that I started covering TV not long after O'Brien made his first move from the shadows of life as a comedy writer – he worked on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsonsto succeed David Letterman in 1993 as host of NBC's show Late Night (now hosted by Seth Meyers). Back then, NBC gave O'Brien years to figure out the show, honing his smartly serious comedy in a way that would inspire then-teenage fans like Seth RogenandBill Hader.

O'Brien left NBC after a disastrous dealwhere the network tried to make him host of its venerated late night program The Tonight Show and also keep its former host Jay Leno at the network. He moved to a late night show on TBS in 2010, but even then, there was a sense that his creativity was a bit hemmed in by the format.

By the time he left his TBS show Conan for good, it seemed O'Brien was already caught in a trend which would hobble other late night shows — as young viewers consumed his content online and ratings on cable dropped.

Now, with a podcast and digital media companyworth many millionsand growing status as a TV comedy legend still willing to do almost anything for a laugh, O'Brien is proving there is a successful life beyond late night.

Particularly, if you have the talent to play the fool while leaving little doubt you're also the smartest person in the room.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.