Since the election of Donald Trump, late-night talk-show hosts have all leaned into political humor. Stephen Colbert has seen a ratings bump as he’s shifted back to covering the news in full force. Jimmy Fallon has made a stronger effort to go for the jugular with his sketches. Seth Meyers’s “Closer Look” at the news has made him a worthy heir to Jon Stewart. Conan O’Brien, a host who’s been in the late-night business longer than his peers, has always been more of an old-fashioned showman, one who presents his point of view through broad, empathetic sketches instead of direct rants to camera. Wednesday’s broadcast, “Conan Without Borders,” was the perfect encapsulation of his style.
Since joining TBS in 2010 with Conan, O’Brien has hosted several special episodes from around the world, visiting South Korea, Cuba, Germany, and Armenia, as well as various cities around America. But his trip to Mexico felt far more loaded than his other specials, which have generally played it safe and focused on having O’Brien enjoy some of the local customs of wherever he is exploring. Thursday’s episode focused on Conan’s compassion for the people he met in Mexico City, and it continually brought up their anger, despair, and confusion at the anti-immigrant rhetoric that pervaded the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“I live in Los Angeles, and I’ve said this before, but you cannot walk three feet in Los Angeles and not be made aware of the incredible cultural contributions—food, art, architecture—that have been made by Mexicans,” O’Brien said late in the show, when interviewing former Mexican President Vicente Fox. “It’s very silly. We’re already together, and it’s not going to change.” That perspective undergirded O’Brien’s various segments, from the sillier to the more politically charged. Where O’Brien’s trips to other countries usually wring most of their laughs from how incongruously he fits into a foreign environment (tall, pale redhead that he is), here he was also trying to emphasize his shared beliefs and feelings with the people he met.
The interview with Fox was the most nakedly political segment of the show, focusing on the impact of President Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and Fox’s rejoinder that Mexico “is not going to pay for that fucking wall” (which seems to have become a running catchphrase for him). O’Brien pressed the former president on his views of how Mexican-U.S. relations will evolve in the coming years if the American government does go about building a border wall. Fox dropped his more colorful language in talking about his vision of the Mexican immigrants who move to America in search of opportunity, pushing back against the idea that the country is “not sending their best,” as Trump put it in his 2015 campaign announcement.
All of O’Brien’s other material was in line with his previous far-flung specials. He filmed a special guest appearance on a telenovela; he donned an outlandish costume to participate in a lucha libre match; he toured the streets of Mexico City with a mariachi band. His other interview, with Rogue One’s Diego Luna, functioned more as a regular celebrity chat, focused on embarrassing anecdotes from the actor’s youth (though Luna did speak of his deep pride playing a Latino hero with a proper Mexican accent in a Star Wars film).
But even in his more whimsical sketches, O’Brien couldn’t avoid touching on the most sensitive topics, especially when walking around Mexico City with a camera crew and chatting to passers-by. Much like for his late-night rivals, it’s obviously hard for O’Brien not to concentrate on the never-ending drumbeat of political news, and the best laugh lines came from random snippets of conversation with people on the street. Beyond his desk jokes or guest interviews, O’Brien has always functioned best as a live personality in a fluid situation—his “remotes,” or filmed segments outside of the studio, are the best thing about Conan and were the most exciting, joyous part of the episode.
The future of O’Brien’s late-night career remains somewhat in flux. Rumors floated a few couple months ago that TBS might want to cut back on his daily show and instead deploy him as a weekly host, or as a flagship face who films international specials like “Without Borders.” Though it’d be a big change for late-night to lose O’Brien’s daily performing, in-depth work like Thursday’s episode is clearly what energizes him the most. It’s his chance to make a point without the didactic “eviscerations” pioneered by Stewart and now weaponized by hosts like Samantha Bee and John Oliver. It’s a way to stay relevant in an industry now focused on who can land the hardest punch.
There was something particularly heartwarming about O’Brien’s opening monologue, conducted entirely in Spanish. The host’s grasp of the language is obviously solid, but translating humor is a much more imposing task. All of O’Brien’s scripted jokes were about as obvious as could be (plenty of material about traffic in Mexico City), but just watching him try to nail the particular rhythms of a stand-up monologue in another language was a terrific high-wire act. Beyond that, the speech underlined the message O’Brien was clearly trying to get across with the whole special—that humor can cross borders, and so can empathy.
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