Conan: Political Pilgrim of Our Time

Romancing tyranny and terror.

It all started with Jon Stewart, whose sixteen-year hosting stint on the Daily Show (1999-2015) marked a sea change from the Johnny Carson era, when late-night entertainment was pretty much free of drastic political slant (at least on the part of the hosts). Stewart’s show, sold as a comic take on the news, was in reality a nightly dose of blatant left-wing propaganda – and was, alarmingly, many young people’s main source of news. Taped interviews with conservatives and libertarians were routinely edited to make them look stupid. Alas, Stewart’s show, not Carson’s, became the template for every one of the current late-night talk shows on American broadcast TV.

One talk-show host who likes to think that he’s different from the rest of the herd is Conan O’Brien. In a recent Oxford Union appearance, he faulted other talk shows for being “all about politics” and for constantly attacking Trump, and declared that he, by contrast, tries to do “silly” and “crazy” comedy that won’t date after a day or two. Well, that sounded refreshing, so I decided to catch up on Conan’s work, which I hadn’t checked out in years. From the Oxford Union gig – which demonstrated that, twenty-seven years into his career as a talk-show host, Conan is still big with young people – I learned that in addition to his nightly TBS show and tons of show clips on YouTube, he has a podcast, plus Conan without Borders, a Netflix series (originally aired in prime time on TBS) on which he travels to various countries around the world.

Admittedly, Conan’s YouTube channel proved to contain some genuinely amusing bits – for example, take-offs on Northern Ireland’s first same-sex marriage and on the Scandinavian “hygge” craze. But the political bias is unmistakable. In a monologue posted on February 28, Conan mocked the fact that Mike Pence had been put in charge of combating the Coronavirus. When Conan does spoof Democrats, it’s for innocuous stuff, such as the presidential candidates talking on top of one another at the February 25 Charleston debate. A recent bit about Bernie Sanders zinged him not for his radical policy positions (au contraire) but because he’s a “grumpy old white guy.”

As for Conan’s podcast, the roster of his guests – sixty so far – is mostly a mix of conspicuously “woke” showbiz figures (Sarah Silverman, Judd Apatow, Patton Oswalt), plus two former Democratic First Ladies (Hillary, Michelle) and a showbiz figure who’s also a Democratic politician (Al Franken). I heard Conan cozy up to Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, with whom he bonded on parenthood, sexism, the greatness of Greta Thunberg (Conan: “there can’t be a better climate advocate”), and the proposition that “gender is a spectrum”; I heard him lavish praise on Michelle Obama (“You and your husband were giving of yourself long before you got into office”) and assent to her claim that virtually every negative comment ever made about her or her husband was racist; and I heard him drool over the “brave,” “impressive” comic Hannah Gadsby, famous for a 2018 Netflix stand-up routine (described by Conan as “a seismic cultural event”) in which she set comedy aside in order to rant humorlessly about her victimhood at the hands of the patriarchy.

But most problematic of all is Conan without Borders, six episodes of which – on Cuba, South Korea, Mexico, Haiti, Italy, and Israel – are available at present on Netflix. (Episodes on Qatar, Japan, Berlin, and Ghana can’t be viewed on Netflix and haven’t been seen by me.) In each episode, Conan takes us to a different country. His 2016 show from South Korea was harmless enough (at least he was willing to make fun of Kim Jong-un). Ditto his 2018 episode on Italy, which is on Netflix, and his episodes on Armenia (2015), Australia (2019), and Greenland (2019), which aren’t on Netflix but which I found on Daily Motion.

But Conan’s February 2015 visit to Cuba, which took place shortly after President Obama lifted travel restrictions to that country, was something else again. Conan seemed determined to affirm every left-wing stereotype about the island prison. The show actually began with music and dancing in the streets (Havana, Conan gushed, “is alive with music”). He implied that Cuba’s poverty is entirely the fault of the US embargo. He described the Batista government – but not the Castro regime – as a “dictatorship.” He claimed to be out to meet people, not deal with politics – a ploy that allowed him to avoid addressing the harsh reality of life under Communism (there was no mention of people dying on rafts trying to get to Florida, or of surgeons driving cabs to earn hard currency) even as he took jab after jab at America.

At some points Conan’s approach was particularly offensive. When he jocularly asked a Spanish teacher how to say “I’m not gay, I’m just on vacation,” it was hard not to be reminded that he was in a country where people have been lined up against walls and shot for being gay. He even made the usual fatuous observation about what a shame it would be if Havana’s broken-down ruins (which are “bursting with character”) were to be replaced by The Gap and other US chain stores (where Cubans might actually be able to earn a living wage).

If Conan’s Cuba trip came in response to Obama’s lifting of travel restrictions, his episode on Mexico, which aired on March 1, 2017, was inspired by Donald Trump’s plans to build a border wall. Again, viewers were treated to fairyland images of Latinos merrily dancing and singing. There was no mention of Mexico’s sky-high murder rate, of the systematic extortion and kidnapping of tourists, of the control of whole swaths of the country by drug cartels and terrorist groups, or of the dependence of the Mexican economy on remittances sent home by people living illegally in the US.

Conan repeatedly pushed the idea that only a bigot would want to build a border wall (never mind such minor open-border problems as child trafficking and depressed wages for American workers); he encouraged people on the street to say ugly things about Trump; he contrasted Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, an alleged front man for crime syndicates and drug cartels, favorably to Trump; and in an interview with former Mexican president Vicente Fox (who has called Trump a “dictator” and who concluded his Conan appearance by giving Trump the finger) seconded Fox’s opposition to the wall, calling it “very silly.”

Like his jaunt to Mexico, Conan’s journey to Haiti was also triggered by Trump. After the president called Haiti a “shithole country” in January 2018, Conan booked a trip there, because, he said, if Trump didn’t like Haitians, “they must be lovely people.” Of course, this was disingenuous in the extreme: Trump wasn’t putting down the people of Haiti but was lamenting that they live in a pigsty with primitive health care, a corrupt judiciary, rampant gang violence, illegal incarceration, summary executions, police torture, and child trafficking. Apropos of the then-ongoing US government shutdown, Conan said: “Thank God I’m in Haiti, where the government actually works.” This was not only flagrantly mendacious – it was just plain condescending.

To the extent that he did acknowledge Haiti’s problems, Conan acted as if they were Trump’s fault. “You are better at foreign policy than the president of the United States right now,” Conan told some guy whom he met on the street; confronted by an angry, anti-American crowd, Conan read a speech to them in Haitian Creole in which he called them wonderful and their country beautiful and, yes, smeared Trump. In one segment, he had a bunch of Haitians tell Trump jokes; in another, he told a group of Haitian children that Trump is incompetent and that America “has not been good to Haiti.”

What went unmentioned throughout was that the real American heavies in Haiti are Conan’s dear friends the Clintons. After the 2010 earthquake, Bill, who was the UN’s point man for aid to Haiti, and Hillary, who as US Secretary of State administered US aid to Haiti, set up reconstruction contracts with firms that made huge “donations” to their family foundation. The reconstruction ended up being a debacle: the Haitians got next to nothing, while the Clinton foundation got rich. The Clintons are so universally despised in Haiti that it’s hard to believe that none of the people Conan met mentioned them; perhaps that footage ended up on the cutting-room floor.

In September 2017, Conan broadcast an episode on Israel, which began with a map showing that country – and, beside it, another land mass marked “Palestine.” Whereas in Cuba, Mexico, and Haiti Conan almost entirely deep-sixed those nations’ crime rates, human-rights records, and crummy economies, in Israel he made sure to call it a “controversial” place that’s “complex and polarizing.” Ridiculing Trump’s peace efforts, he joked that Jared Kushner was reading a book called Middle East Peace for Dummies; apropos of Trump’s plan to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, he displayed a map of a future Jerusalem in which a massive Trump Hotel would figure prominently.

As expected, Conan eventually visited the Palestinian territories – specifically, the West Bank – where he gave us yet another lecture on walls. He showed us Palestinians dancing – but not building rockets, digging tunnels, or teaching children to hate Jews. Confronted on the West Bank side of the Israeli security barrier by a gang of mouthy anti-Israeli activists from the US, Conan wilted. (To his credit, he did visit an Israeli hospital where wounded Syrians were receiving treatment and praised the doctors for “doing God’s work.”)

But there was one particularly interesting detail about Conan’s Israel episode, and it spoke volumes. The show, it turned out, was not aired in its original version; guests attending a Los Angeles screening on the night before it appeared on TBS were treated to a sequence in which, according to a Jerusalem Post article by Amy Spiro, a Palestinian man “discussed his son, who he said was killed by IDF soldiers during a riot.” During the post-screening Q&A, wrote Spiro,

some audience members expressed their discomfort with the footage. What was the context of the killing and who was at fault? And if you’re going to show Palestinian sorrow and suffering – what of Israeli suffering? What of Israeli victims of terror, who have watched their families be slaughtered? Or those who live in range of rockets from Gaza?” That sequence was cut from the final version. 

Spiro also shed light on Conan’s run-in with those anti-Israel activists. In the version aired on TBS (and now Netflix), the encounter is cut in such a way as to make the activists’ arguments seem almost reasonable. In the full version of the exchange that was posted online, however, the ugliness of their views is manifest. As Spiro noted, “many incendiary and false accusations were made; one man proclaimed that ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.’” In short, the final version of this sequence was edited in such a way as to make hatemongers who seek Israel’s destruction look like lovers of peace.

In Conan without Borders, Conan seeks to come off as empathic, as a friend to all the world; he wants to be the opposite of the Ugly American. But an Ugly American is exactly what he is: at least in Mexico, Haiti, and Cuba, he’s a wealthy gringo tourist gone slumming. In those countries, even when he seems merely to be up to his usual goofy hijinks – haggling at an outdoor market, being a klutz at a dance class – he’s whitewashing hovels.

The lesson here is simple. To visit poor, oppressed countries and pretend that the inhabitants aren’t poor and oppressed is to do them no favor. To travel to the homelands of people who died trying to escape to America and encourage the locals to savage the US and its president is twisted. And to serve up programming that reinforces the America-hatred and softness on socialism that have already been inculcated in younger viewers by teachers and professors is a cruel disservice to them, and to the truth.