Late-night talk shows, since the very beginning, have been largely self-contained. They take place in their studio, primarily around the desk. There’s a couch for the guests, and a place for musicians and stand-up comedians to ply their craft. This is probably part of the reason that late-night shows, more than any other genre of television, get chided for being staid or unimaginative. When late-night shows decide to “shake it up,” it often involves something as banal as standing when they used to sit or sitting when they used to stand (shout out to Seth Meyers). However, on occasion a late-night host will leave the friendly confines of their studio and venture out into the real world. This is where Conan O’Brien distinguishes himself from all his late-night competitors, both past and present.
Nobody has ever been better in remote pieces, or when his show hits the road, than O’Brien. He feeds off it in a way that nobody else does. Granted, he begins from a place of strength, as he is already a very funny, talented guy. His shows, be they Late Night, The Tonight Show or the self-titled Conan, are perfectly enjoyable when it’s just O’Brien in a studio with his band and guests. When he leaves the studio, though, things are taken to another level. Conan O’Brien is the king of the remote piece.
Sure, others who came before him did remote pieces as well. David Letterman was excellent at it, such as when he worked the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant. Letterman is a very different beast than Conan, though, as he always kept himself at a distance from what was going on around him, even when he ventured out into the world. This distance became even more literal later in his career, as “remote” pieces would see him remaining in the studio. Why bother getting up from behind the desk when he could send a camera over to Hello Deli and just telecommute his remote pieces? That’s why it was such a joyous occasion when, in his final days before retirement, he headed out with Billy Eichner to run around New York yelling at folks on the streets.
Conan throws himself wholeheartedly into his remote pieces, though, giving them more energy, and more momentum, than pieces done by others. O’Brien is as sharp and quick as Letterman, but whereas Letterman’s vibe was always “Look at these idiots,” Conan’s is more of a “Look at what an idiot I am!” O’Brien is always willing to make himself the butt of the joke, but mostly he is interested in making every situation as absurd and silly as possible.
He’s also shown himself, in recent years, to be incredibly ambitious in putting the “remote” into remote pieces. In bygone eras, Conan went to places such as Ireland and Finland, but on Conan he has taken his travels to another level. So far, he’s been to Cuba, Armenia, Qatar and South Korea, the last of which has not aired at this moment. While his trip to Qatar was, admittedly, mostly limited to a military base, his trips to Cuba and Armenia saw O’Brien playing the part of a travel guide and a goofy, puckish fool. Not only were these both very good episodes of television, they were significant events in the late-night landscape, which really means something these days. In the battle for eyeballs in the late-night landscape, Conan’s travels give him more attention than he can get from anything he does in the studio. Additionally, you can feel how alive O’Brien becomes when he gets the chance to interact with not just the general public, but strangers in a strange land. His wacky antics are universal.
While Conan’s trips overseas have been the most significant of his remote pieces, and we probably shouldn’t overlook that trip to Finland to meet his doppelganger, the then Finnish Prime Minister, this alone does not make him the king of remote pieces. It makes him the most ambitious, but ambition and quality do not always go hand-in-hand. This is the lesson all those live network musicals has taught us. Consistently over the years O’Brien has used the opportunity to leave the studio to do some of the funniest, and silliest, stuff of his career, and sometimes in all of late night. Take, for example, his trip to an old timey baseball reenactment. O’Brien visited some men and woman who were recreating a baseball game from 1864, which gave Conan the opportunity to dress ridiculously and use his old timey accent he loves to use so much. Despite the fact he was pretending to play baseball over a century ago, O’Brien still felt right at home, and still made it weird and wonderful. It’s one of his most popular bits ever, and with good cause. Aside from Stephen Colbert, nobody else in late night could have pulled this off.
Way back in the day, when Conan’s show wasn’t being carried by a Houston affiliate, he went down there to ask residents who didn’t know him or his show what they thought about Conan O’Brien. Conan has also taken on an assortment of “jobs” over the years, often with tremendous results. He’s worked at a florist and as a Mary Kay consultant and as a truck driver. Every single time, Conan is left to play off of non-actors, and non-comedians, but is able to generate, and sustain, comedy all by himself. All this without scripting anything either, mind you. Conan is left to his own devices, and has to carry the comedy, making these remote pieces a real challenge. They could always go wrong, and sometimes they do. Television shows have editors for a reason. However, in the end, almost all these pieces turn out to be tremendous. Oh, and one time Conan picked apples with Mr. T.
Of course, in an issue about “the road,” it makes sense to include some stuff involving cars. In recent years, two of Conan’s most popular remote pieces have involved Ice Cube, Kevin Hart and Conan driving around acting ridiculous. Here, Conan has two professionals to help him, but the comedy still comes from Conan being a fish out of water around his two compadres. Lastly, of course, there was the time Conan sold his Ford Taurus, another classic bit from Conan’s early days on television. This only skims the surface of O’Brien’s remote pieces, and he will continue doing them as long as he is on television. It seems unlikely that Conan will go the way of Letterman and grow into a curmudgeon who doesn’t want to leave the studio. O’Brien thrives off of it, and that’s not going to change.
In the current late-night landscape, Conan is lapping the field when it comes to remote pieces. Jimmy Fallon, the reigning king of late night, essentially never leaves the studio. Meyers does it very rarely, and usually he’s just hanging out with his parents or brother. Colbert is still early in his late-night career, and he’s done a handful of perfectly fine remote pieces. On The Colbert Report, which was a different kind of show, he did some great remote pieces, and he is a genius much like O’Brien. James Corden does do a lot of bits outside the studio, but, like everything he does, it’s all just either celebrity veneration or a chance for Corden to do his “I’m so cheeky” brand of comedy that is a real bore. Nobody does remote pieces as often as Conan, and nobody does them better.
You know something good is going to happen when Conan O’Brien hits the road and leaves the studio, whether he’s going down to Inglewood with Deon Cole to eat soul food, or going to Cuba, a country that was verboten to American travelers for decades. He’s a man of the people who is at his best when he’s just interacting with random strangers and making himself look dumb. As such, even though he’s been hosting a late-night talk show, off and on, for decades, his show remains dynamic and interesting. There’s only so much a person can do in a studio, but it’s a big wide world out there with infinite possibilities. Conan O’Brien recognizes that, even if nobody else does.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.