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‘Conan O’Brien Must Go’ Review: Conan’s Max Travel Series Is Smartly Stupid Fun



Max‘s Conan O’Brien Must Go is a travel show with a twist.

“My mission is that you learn nothing about the country,” O’Brien explained on a spectacular recent installment of the Hot Ones web series, an appearance that I’m confident did more to boost the visibility of Conan O’Brien Must Go than the dozens of marketing dollars Warner Bros. surely put into the series. “My job is that you know less about the country after I’m done than when I started.”

Conan O’Brien Must Go

The Bottom Line

More silly than substantive, as intended.

Airdate: Thursday, April 18 (Max)
Executive Producers: Conan O’Brien and Jeff Ross

While O’Brien’s performance on Hot Ones — especially after pronouncing that he’d never encountered a spice until his 50s — may have surprised some observers, few of the late-night veteran’s devotees will be surprised that his assessment of Conan O’Brien Must Go is disingenuous. Or at least it’s a hair disingenuous. Conan O’Brien Must Go isn’t the sort of travel series that will leave viewers with “knowledge,” per se. But over four episodes, knowledge inevitably sneaks in.

Conan O’Brien Must Go is a smartly dumb show — or a stupidly smart show — focused (loosely) on what is essential about travel. It’s a series about arriving in a new place open to meeting new people, learning new languages, tasting new foods and experiencing uncomfortable new circumstances… and then making fun of them, when all the while you’re mostly mocking yourself and the fears people have about stepping outside of their comfort zones.

Or maybe it’s just a show about Conan O’Brien making fun of travel shows. However expansive or limited your perspective, and however expansive or limited Conan O’Brien’s perspective, Conan O’Brien Must Go is a very silly and occasionally illuminating series that’s still finding its rhythms and its comic voice as the fourth episode concludes. That leaves the show’s biggest takeaway as “Wait, that’s it? I want more.”

Although O’Brien has done travel-centric material in the past — I’d argue that the international jaunts were the pinnacle of his TBS show — Conan O’Brien Must Go is more an extension of his podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Fan.

Conan O’Brien Must Go finds the host heading abroad to meet with and provide assistance to listeners/viewers/fans from around the world. That gives the impression of something more structured than what actually occurs.

Yes, Conan goes to Thailand to help a young woman stand up to her overbearing mother, attempts to get radio play for a Finland-based fan’s hip-hop flavored band, submits to portraiture from an artist in Argentina, and meets with three Pakistani-Irish siblings in Dublin. But those activities are more pretense than premise.

The visits — deemed “surprise visits” in some cases — really set a tone more than anything else, something along the lines of “playfully combative” in a vein that will be familiar to podcast listeners. O’Brien likes busting chops and admires people who are prepared to fight back. One of the things that O’Brien is best at is never seeming to be punching down — which isn’t easy on a literal level, given that O’Brien towers over his guests, but it isn’t easy on any level since O’Brien will always be a generally famous, Harvard-educated TV personality and his new friends tend not to be. It takes astonishing calibration to go to a foreign country, find somebody for whom English may not be a first language, and keep the joke from ever being as facile as, “Ha, ha, I’m making fun of you and you don’t get it.” Sure, that might be a layer of the humor at times, but Conan is careful to situate himself and his own discomfort as the real target of the joke.

When O’Brien wants to have somebody he can make fun of mercilessly, that’s where somebody like longtime collaborator Jordan Schlansky comes in. Schlansky plays a key part in the Argentina episode, taking on the much more traditional role as the travel host who did his research and knows bits of trivia about nearly everything, so Conan ribs him mercilessly for doing his homework. Even then, the joke tends to be that Schlansky is right and Conan just doesn’t care.

Or as O’Brien puts it, “Whenever I visit a new country, I like to learn the local customs, so I can ignore them.”

O’Brien is an appreciator of the genre, and Conan O’Brien Must Go is an appreciative tweaker of the genre, in some of the same ways the host used to treat the talk-show format back when he was a Young Turk. The Finland episode is dominated by Conan and company’s enthusiastic over-reliance on drone shots, going so far as to have O’Brien running around carrying the drone in Oslo, where flying such crafts is apparently illegal. There are multiple occasions — the street food scene in Bangkok and a butcher’s shop in Dublin — where O’Brien makes sure to sample “extreme” foods, while acknowledging that that’s what travel hosts do. I’ve seen more travel hosts than I could count navigating the floating markets of Thailand, but I’ve never seen a host do it with a squeaking rubber chicken and an Angry Birds hat, clutching a carved dildo.

And then sometimes Conan just wants to be REALLY goofy! He performs a song on a popular Thai variety show, attempts the tango and Muay Thai boxing, and goes on a quest for Bono in a public park in Dublin. He’s game for anything as long as he can look ridiculous. Not everything works, exactly, but you can always sense O’Brien and his writers restlessly scanning the horizon for the next fun thing to do along their journey.

One thing they haven’t figured out how to do, or figured out if they want to do, is be wholly sincere. The episode in Ireland is couched in the idea that this is an opportunity for O’Brien to trace his roots on Max’s dime, but any time the proceedings get too close to an actual emotion, he beats a hasty retreat into the absurd. Episodes all conclude with obligatory, humor-free summations of his experiences — again, a nod to travel-show convention amid the freewheeling wackiness — and knowing Conan’s work, it’s easy to feel like he could, if he chose to, keep 95 percent of the eager-to-please foolishness and also weave in some authentic feelings.

Or maybe that’s just not something Conan O’Brien Must Go aspires to. In that same Hot Ones segment, O’Brien described his goal, again disingenuously, as making viewers dumber after each 40-minute episode than they were when they began. He’ll have to settle for “more entertained.” Bring on season two.

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