With ‘Conan in Japan,’ Conan O’Brien Finds the Secret to Late-Night’s Future

"Conan Without Borders" segments have been series highlights since O'Brien's trip to Cuba, and now they could help build an even better nightly show.
Conan Without Borders Conan in Japan Conan O'Brien TBS
"Conan in Japan"

Any late-night show is all about the host, and rarely is this more evident than when Conan O’Brien goes on the road in his increasingly popular travel specials, “Conan Without Borders.” These fall back on the host’s talents, instead of pimping a cavalcade of so-so guests, and gets him out of the studio to interact with compelling people. But they also allow for tighter, more precisely edited episodes, which helps remind viewers why they tune in every evening: It’s Conan, and nothing but the best of him.

As announced in May, future nightly episodes of “Conan” will shift from the classic hour-long format to a leaner, “less structured” half-hour program. He’ll still be on the air four nights a week, but Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band is out and a stronger focus on digital, social, and live events are in.

Most important, though, is letting “Conan” be Conan. How his producers plan to spark younger viewers’ interest with a series still only available via the old paradigm of pay cable is anyone’s guess — more YouTube clips? Instagram stories? Snapchat integration that gives users O’Brien’s luxe orange pompadour? However, the emphasis on live events could pay huge dividends if his “Conan Without Borders” specials serve as inspiration.

Just look at his latest entry, “Conan in Japan.” O’Brien’s first appearance on television since “Conan” wrapped October 4 (to start the rejiggering process) is more than a welcome return. It’s carefully honed and enlivened by O’Brien’s sheer enthusiasm. Out in the world, charged only with making new friends and learning new things, the improv expert is a giddy delight. O’Brien uses the same innate instincts he’s perfected by interviewing thousands of celebrities — some boring, some not — to hone in on the part he needs to play to best elevate the comedy.

Take the first segment from “Conan in Japan.” O’Brien is receiving instruction on proper Japanese etiquette for his trip by an older, somewhat strict, and quite plainspoken teacher. When he asks about hugging, she not only tells him it’s inappropriate, but also is surprisingly forthcoming with her opinions on Conan’s looks (she doesn’t like them). So Conan plays up the mock offense, in part because his hurt feelings could be genuine, but also because he’s built up a boastful reputation and knows how to play off it to the audience. O’Brien is great when poking fun at himself, either by refuting insults in flailing, macho fashion or playing into given compliments with a wry smile and long roll of his tongue.

He’s even better when the reactions come out of nowhere. In his statement about the format shift, he said he would be out of the studio more often, and the diversity of neighborhoods, citizens, terrain, and events in the Los Angeles area should provide ample opportunity for Conan to interact with the masses. Get him out of the studio, or at least get him out from behind the desk. Even he says he’s better unencumbered while explaining his sex appeal to the etiquette instructor: “I’m a very expressive person,” O’Brien says. “I move. I jump. This is who I am.”

And like everyone, O’Brien can benefit from editing. While his nightly shows are cut down from their full recording time, “Conan in Japan” was obviously a much longer trip than what’s shown in the 42-minute special. The producers can pick the best moments and ditch segments that don’t pan out.

Editing can also create jokes in ways that a “live” show can’t, like when Conan visits a “Rental Family Agent” and pays to have a fake family keep him company while in Tokyo. There’s a montage of the family’s day out and a fake Christmas card kicker, and they set a quick pace in Conan’s selection process: He holds up pictures of possible wives and daughters until he’s satisfied with his new “family.” The comic rhythm feels more natural than a 1:1 interview, and you’re not waiting for the few moments of gold mined from a celebrity’s audition story. It’s all gold, or at least pretty shiny.

O’Brien has an opportunity with his new format to trim the fat. (Not the literal belly fat the etiquette teacher described as “fluffy” — I told you she was candid.) Late-night clips are more appealing to younger audiences than late-night shows because while some interviews are good, most are boring. Some sketches are funny; most won’t even earn a smile. If something really exciting happens, it’ll be online the next day.

That’s not the case with “Conan Without Borders,” and it doesn’t have to be the case for “Conan.” Batting 1.000 is impossible, sure, but raising the average above .300 would instantly elevate his show above the other late-night fodder, and it’s got a head start with an extremely funny, seasoned, and sharp leader. So cut back on celebrities and amp up the pre-taped outings — Conan can carry the rest.

“Conan in Japan” is available now on TBS. “Conan” returns in its new format in 2019.

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