‘Conan O’Brien Must Go’ Is the Best Version of Conan

The comedian’s new travel show proves he’s at his best away from the rigid confines of late night

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After hundreds of episodes of Hot Ones, there’s little a guest can do to shake up the reliable formula of thoughtful questions combined with increasingly spicy chicken wings. But Conan O’Brien isn’t just any guest. Conan is someone who arrives with “Dr. Arroyo,” his personal physician, who, when asked where he went to medical school, answers “1998”; he deposits the remains of each wing into his jacket pocket; seemingly unfazed by the heat, he chugs hot sauces like they’re in tiny liquor bottles from a hotel minibar; he rubs the drumsticks on his hands, mouth, and, yes, nipples. Even as Conan’s pale complexion begins to resemble a ripe tomato, he remains committed to the bit, raising his body temperature by two degrees in a state of delirium. (According to Dr. Arroyo, of course.) Behold, the comedy GOAT:

Aside from being one of the funniest people on the planet, Conan seems to operate at the peak of his powers when surrounded by chaos. He was, for a time, our longest-tenured late-night host: He had a career on the airwaves that spanned nearly three decades, not unlike his icon, Johnny Carson. But while Conan could do the usual late-night beats in his sleep—the opening monologue, the celebrity interviews—he was never better than when things went completely off the rails. Consider: Conan used his last week as the short-lived host of The Tonight Show to waste NBC’s money on bringing a Kentucky Derby–winning horse to set; trolled his interns and staff in remote segments; introduced the world to his associate producer Jordan Schlansky, who gamely played a pretentious foil; found an actual Tinder date with Dave Franco.

But some of Conan’s best work has been when he’s left the rigid confines of late night altogether. In 2015 Conan began a spinoff travel series, Conan Without Borders, in which he explored other countries armed with little more than his self-deprecating wit. “[Travel shows are] completely outside the realm of anything I do,” he explained to The New York Times in 2019. “They can be frightening because they take away a lot of control. I’m out there, I don’t often know what I’m going to encounter.” More often than not, it’s led to comedy gold. For instance, while he was taking a Japanese etiquette lesson, Conan’s instructor said that he wasn’t her type. The reason: “Face.”

Face. You could never script something so casually brutal; therein lies the magic. Most important, Conan never mocks other cultures to induce laughs—instead, he makes himself the butt of the joke, leaning into the bit of an ignorant tourist. But what truly elevated Conan Without Borders was how he could deftly weave in educational components and approach dark periods of a country’s history with genuine sensitivity. (Conan’s visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial with his longtime assistant, Sona Movsesian, is among the most emotionally resonant moments of his career.) Thankfully, even though Conan has bowed out of the late-night scene, he’s doubling down on the travelogues.

On Thursday—Conan’s birthday, no less—Max released Conan O’Brien Must Go, a four-part series that takes him to Norway, Argentina, Thailand, and Ireland. These destinations were inspired by his podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, which, in addition to celebrity interviews, features conversations with fans from around the globe. (The fans frequently invite Conan to come visit their neck of the woods; few would ever imagine he’d take them up on the offer.) While Conan O’Brien Must Go doesn’t rely on celebrity cameos, every episode opens with Werner Herzog voiceover narration about the grandeur of Mother Earth and how, to fully appreciate its natural wonders, we must sometimes “defile it.” Rest assured, Conan the Defiler is more than up to the task.

What separates Conan O’Brien Must Go from his first travel show is the incorporation of those fans, including a Norwegian fish farmer, an Irish medical student, and an Argentinian painter. The fans understandably react to Conan showing up at their front door with a mixture of shock and glee, but before they even get a chance to compose themselves, he playfully roasts their respective living situations. Nobody gets it worse than Jarle, a young Norwegian rapper who still sleeps with soccer-themed bedsheets from childhood and has bread so stale it lands with an audible thud when Conan drops it. “I’ll wipe the floor with you,” Conan tells Jarle, “which actually might be a good idea, because I think you’d pick up a lot of lint.”

But while it’s enjoyable in its own right to see Conan surprise fans, Conan O’Brien Must Go is never better than when he throws all caution to the wind mingling with the locals. One standout bit in Argentina involves a soccer team that invites Conan to its stadium, where he proceeds to take the sport’s reputation for theatrical diving to another level, with fake blood spurting out of his mouth. Argentina is also where Conan reunites with his archnemesis, Schlansky, who repeatedly corrects him on the proper pronunciation of tango over dinner. (Schlansky insists he’s right, even when the chefs disagree with him.) And while some comedians might have second thoughts if nobody seems entertained by their shenanigans, Conan always doubles down—if only for his own amusement. (The Argentinian gauchos did not enjoy his singing talents.)

Despite all the silliness that’s part of the Conan experience, Conan O’Brien Must Go also manages to have moments of real profundity. For one, Conan uses the Ireland episode to explore his own heritage, culminating with a visit to the patch of rural farmland that belonged to his ancestors. It puts everything into perspective: His forebears fled the Irish famine for America, and their descendant returned with a camera crew and decades of fame and success under his belt. Truly, what are the odds? But what really tugs at the heartstrings is a brief video from the Norwegian fish farmer Kai, who explains how Conan’s visit to his small town completely changed his life. It’s genuinely heartwarming stuff, proving that comedy can achieve more than just laughs when it’s approached with curiosity and empathy.

It’s been three years since Conan last graced our screens, and his absence really underlined that he’s one of one. You can’t imagine anyone else showing up to a foreign country and reacting to situations on the fly without everything falling apart at the seams. But as Conan proved time and again during his late-night tenure, that’s where great comedy can be found: among the people, whether it’s in the streets of Harlem or a Civil War reenactment. Conan’s late-night career went through many phases, all of them worthy, but in retrospect, it feels like the format was holding him back. Conan O’Brien Must Go isn’t just a hilarious return to form: It’s one of the best things he’s ever done. Let’s hope the show’s Season 2 renewal will be a matter of when, not if. With Conan at the helm, there are so many more countries worth exploring—and defiling.

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