The Dying Art of the Late Night Remote Lives On in Conan O’Brien Must Go

So here is Conan O’Brien, dressed like a Viking, facing down another, much slighter Viking gent who, in historic Viking tradition, must deliver an insult before a fight to the death ensues.

Except the adversary is struggling to come up with an insult. After trying “overgrown ginger,” he settles on something revealing Conan’s true native allegiance: “You hamburger-eating diabetic joke of a lost British colony.”

Yes, this takes place in Conan’s new series on Max, Conan O’Brien Must Go; but, despite the locale, we are in very familiar—and very funny—territory. One of the standout features of Conan’s distinguished late-night career, were his comedy “remotes.” (Search YouTube for “Best Conan Remotes”;  you’ll thank me later.)

Conan’s newest TV entry is not strictly a late-night show—the show’s entire four-episode first season drops today—but the hour-long episodes have the feel, and laugh level, of the classic Conan remotes of his late-night career.

And they particularly stand out because there isn’t much like this being done in late-night television anymore.

Not that Conan invented the genre. He would be the first to acknowledge that he built his remote-comedy oeuvre off his personal devotion to the now famous remotes that were among the brilliant ideas characterizing the first iteration of David Letterman in late night—a show called Late Night.

Dave recorded a trove of now famous remotes doing things like visiting a Manhattan store called “Just Bulbs” and asking for shades (which, as night follows day, leads to a store called “Just Shades.”) Many of the early remotes were the inspiration of his partner and head writer Merrill Markoe, to give credit where due.

As part of the deal to introduce Dave to NBC’s late-night lineup, he had been compelled to agree not to do a traditional monologue (he wound up calling what he did “Opening Remarks”) so as not to tread into the signature territory of his lead-in star, Johnny Carson. That led Dave and Merrill to explore an area they came to label “found” humor. In fact, Markoe created some of the bits because she looked in the Yellow Pages and “found” things that seemed funny.

But the style of the remotes, which generally included Dave dispassionately pursuing some peculiar objective, such as (famously) trying to deliver a fruit basket to the new NBC owners, GE, clearly influenced part of Conan’s own approach, which often emphasized the absurdity of some aspect of human existence—like a “Star Wars” obsession—but with similar deadpan delivery.

Conan put his personal stamp on remote comedy, though, with his taste for slapstick, costumes and other sight-gags: Conan drinks from a wine glass as big as he is during a trip to Napa Valley; tries on his own Conan mask for Halloween; puts on an 1860’s uniform to play old-timey baseball (his personal favorite remote).

The remotes captured the range of Conan’s comedy: silly, broad, wisecracky, ribald, innocent, clever. They often started with a sure-fire funny premise—Conan in an odd place—but were at their funniest when he delivered a line inspired by some unpredictable moment—as when in a bit of him driving a monster truck, he’s told there’s a button that can shut him down at any moment. “That’s what happened to me at NBC,” he says.

Almost every aspect of Conan’s remote range (minus the NBC dig) is on display in the first episode’s trip to Norway. Of course, the premise here is a callback to previous road trips he took on shows like Conan Without Borders. Here the idea springs from his contacts with fans around the world on “Conan O’Brien Needs a Fan,” a subseries of his popular podcast “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.”

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He ventures to Norway (and to Argentina, Thailand, and Ireland in the other three episodes of Must Go) to meet up with Yarla, a podcast fan and would-be Norwegian rap artist. That meeting is joyous for Yarla, even when Conan goes through his apartment and finds stale bread, one spoon, and potatoes sporting sprouts.

The adventure includes Conan dressed in ridiculous “old-timey” Norse costume; a conversation (deadpan style) with a man in the street named “Dogfin” (Conan: “do you have a friend named Fishface?”); the interaction with Vikings; a sex discussion with a woman expert (Conan reveals he needs the stimulation of pondering the Woodrow Wilson Administration); a voyage on a fish-farming vessel; and a real highlight: Conan rapping the bridge to Yarla’s latest song.

His falsetto lyric:

I’m looking at a fiord.

There’s salmon in the sea.

My baby says she’s bored.

She’s not in love with me.

Later he performs with Yarla’s band at a club and he kills.

As he does for most of this hour. Beyond the comedy, the show features some truly spectacular visuals of Norwegian vistas, many aerial ones from a drone camera, which, like everything else, becomes fodder for comedy.

There is also nostalgia in seeing much of the Conan gang back together for this show: His forever EP, the exemplary Jeff Ross; his long-time head writer Mike Sweeney, who doubles as director; his producer/writer/sometime comedy victim, Jordan Schlansky. O’Brien even manages a shout out to his agent and manager, who were star players in the 2010 Tonight Show drama documented in my book “The War for Late Night”: the estimable Rick Rosen and Gavin Pollone.

It’s not Conan in late night, which is much missed, but it’s the next best thing.

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