US comedy giant Conan O’Brien declares Ireland ‘quite the ride... for a ginger’

Television: Irish-American presenter is very funny in the Irish episode of his travel show, especially when searching for Bono

Conan O’Brien is 61 now but has stayed true to his persona of the kid who is always annoying but everyone loves because he can make them laugh. In his 30-year reign as one of America’s premier late night hosts, he was the opposite to rivals such as Jimmy Kimmel in that the joke was always on him.

The deftly scripted introduction to his new show, Conan O’Brien Must Go, parodies the infinite number of travel shows with a mock presentation of Planet Earth at its most stunning. “To appreciate the astounding glamour of this planet, sometimes you must defile it,” narrates a cosmic, unseen voice.

“Behold the defiler.”

And there he is: the familiar ginger quiff, the long face. “His character is vile, base and depraved. Once a proud talkshow host, he has been driven by a change in ecosystem to a drier, harsher climate: the weekly podcast.”

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It’s a joke which, of course, carries the sting of truth. When the Conan O’Brien Show finished in 2021, its ratings mirrored the fate of the late-night shows by plummeting. The age of the suave impresario – which O’Brien subverted with a wicked comic sense – was all but done. So, the star – “this clown with dull tiny eyes, the eyes of a crudely painted doll” – is forced to hit the road, “fuelled by a bottomless hunger for recognition and the occasional selfie”.

In his new four-part show, he starts in Norway and finishes with a visit to his ancestral homeland of Ireland. It’s clear from the off that, freed from the strictures of network television, O’Brien is free to indulge his instincts as an absurdist. His visit to Ireland begins with an uneasy walk through a Valley Of The Squinting Windows-type village in which everyone looks uncomfortably like Conan, including a horse whose face is altered to include the quiff and the tiny eyes.

O’Brien’s Ireland is devoid of lush coastal scenery or the obligatory nods to stout and literature. Instead, he has Lynn Ruane give him a crash course on Dublin slang – “you’re wreckin’ me Ma’s head” – and a cheerfully ribald exchange of sexual slang in which O’Brien feigns bewilderment before being told that in his case, if he was lucky, someone might say: “He’s a ride – for a ginger.”

He meets the Three Tenors and auditions for them. He visits Obama Plaza, where he unveils his own mock statue with a hand raised and manages to swivel it so he can high-five the copper likeness of the former president. He gets a walk-on part on Ros na Rún.

The Northern Lights don’t come out for another... three hours. I’m not gonna stick around for that shit

—  Conan O’Brien

In a segment titled Finding Bono he goes hunting in a forlorn Merrion Park for the rock star in hibernation season, discovering a pair of wraparound shades in the foliage and unearthing grainy Bigfoot-style footage of a possible Bono furtively darting through woodlands, luring him out by hanging a fake global humanitarian award from a tree. It’s good, silly fun and it would have been heightened had the real Bono been sport enough to make an appearance. But, then, he was probably never asked: this version of O’Brien is decidedly stripped of celebrity. It’s Conan the maturing prankster moving through ordinary life and having his delusions gently pricked by a series of Irish people who deliver their lines in that Cyril Cusack way of soft cunning.

O’Brien’s great-grandfather, Thomas Noonan O’Brien, emigrated from Ireland to Massachusetts. By the time young Conan came along, they were well established: his father a Harvard professor, his mother a Boston attorney, and O’Brien himself served as president of Harvard Lampoon while at the university. He was precocious and whip smart, and even though he always wore his Irishness with light irreverence, he always “got” Ireland. Visiting his ancestral hometown of Galbally, he points to a pub across the road and says of his forefather: “Maybe he would have found time to visit Fraser Lounge Bar and Undertaker to grab a pint... and hit on a grieving widow.”

In one of the funniest sections, he references Stanley Tucci, the new king of sensual food and drink entertainment, by sampling black pudding in Loughnane’s Irish butchers. He takes a bite, says dreamily, “I feel like I have come home,” and performs a writhing, orgasmic dance on Loughnane’s sparkling tiled floor.

The good-natured nonsense will make for confusing viewing for the millions of Irish Americans who carry more romantic notions of the auld sod. But part of O’Brien’s point is to gently take the air out of all that stuff. His visit to Norway sees him riff about the Northern Lights as we watch a dazzling display. Then the camera pans out to show O’Brien holding a laptop on which he is watching the same scene.

“Yeah,” he says. “The Northern Lights don’t come out for another... three hours. I’m not gonna stick around for that shit.”

Fair enough. It does feel a pity that O’Brien doesn’t permit himself to stray from the sharply scripted daftness every so often. The close of the Irish show has him in the field where his ancestral cottage once stood. His Obama Plaza statue is beside him and he is contemplative about the decision to emigrate from such a beautiful spot, a journey which ultimately led to his place in the pantheon of talkshow satirists. It’s a rare sighting of a sincere O’Brien and is as fleeting as a burst of Irish sunshine on a rainy day. Then he is gone, with the traditional farewell: “Thank you, Ireland. You are quite the ride. For a ginger.”