In “Conan Without Borders: Berlin,” TBS’ fifth special featuring Conan O’Brien as the Ugly American, a German street vendor refers to the pushy visitor as David Letterman, a case of mistaken identity embraced by the ginger-haired host.
Truth is, O’Brien has little in common these days with the man he once replaced at “Late Night.” In some ways, he’s better.
Not that I’ve canceled my membership to the Dave Fan Club. His ability to simultaneously honor and mock the establishment made him the most influential comedian of our time. But by his mid-40s, Letterman was clearly bored with playing the bad boy. When he moved to CBS in 1993, he traded in his sneakers for designer shoes, cut back on expeditions outside the studio and made nice with Cher. The court jester was now king.
O’Brien, who at 54 has the longest tenure of anyone currently working the late shift, shows little interest in adopting any regal habits. On a recent episode of “Conan,” now in its seventh season, he all but abandoned his monologue to do an impression of a Swedish dude on a Segway. That type of irrelevant — and irreverent — behavior is common. At any given moment, O’Brien might lunge at a female guest, flip over the furniture or break out a dance move that would make Elaine Benes cringe.
His anything-for-a-laugh impulses are on display in Wednesday’s prime-time special. O’Brien is at his best in the real world, acting like a goofball while disoriented bystanders look dazed or disgusted. The highlight comes when he halfheartedly attempts to learn a Bavarian dance from a pair of acrobatic brothers, then squares off with their disapproving father, who appears to have picked up his parenting skills from “The Great Santini.” Later, O’Brien slips on a dog mask and gets spanked by a no-nonsense dominatrix who doesn’t seem to understand why her client is being so squirrelly. She probably prefers “Nightline.”
O’Brien wasn’t always so loose-goosey. In his early days, you could practically smell the flop sweat as he leaned heavily on his dream team of writers, including Louis C.K., Bob Odenkirk and Robert Smigel, the mad genius behind Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog.
But as O’Brien’s confidence grew, so did his goofiness. The 2011 documentary “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” is most notable for his unabashed resentment over how he was mistreated by NBC during his short-lived stint as host of “The Tonight Show.” But the film also reveals his inner fifth-grader, eschewing high-fives with his staff for punches on the shoulder. Hard punches.
It’s not like O’Brien can’t behave himself. He dedicates time in his Berlin special to visit with refugees camped at Tempelhof Airport. Last Tuesday, most of “Conan” consisted of a thoughtful interview with Bernie Sanders.
But after the heated presidential race, I’m in need of an escape, where the closest thing to a political statement might be an impression of Donald Trump voguing to “For the Love of Money” or Arnold Schwarzenegger chomping on a sausage.
Some nights, you just want to throw paper airplanes from the back row and giggle. O’Brien is just the right deskmate.