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Conan O'Brien's 'weird diplomacy' in Armenia

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The late night host takes his abroad again, this time with his assistant, who is of Armenian descent. And he meets a group of unlikely fans: teenaged Syrian refugees.

Conan O'Brien has hit the road again, this time to Armenia with his assistant, Sona Movsesian. After the success earlier this year of his Cuba expedition, when O'Brien became the first late-night host to travel to the country in more than 50 years, O'Brien talked about making travel shows a regular feature on his program. He seems to be making good on the promise.

O'Brien has cited a couple of different reasons for the interest in travel episodes. There's the desire to keep his content fresh in a late-night television market that becomes more crowded by the season. There's also the fact that travel is, well, fun. But the Armenia trip had a very specific impetus. Movsesian is of Armenian descent, and, as O'Brien explains to her family at the beginning of the episode, he wants to help her reconnect with her heritage.

The Frame's John Horn spoke with both Conan O'Brien and Sona Movsesian about their trip, what they it affected them, and who yells at whom in their relationship.


The last time we talked, you were about to air your episode on your trip to Cuba. Did that have some influence on your wanting to go to Armenia?

Conan O'Brien: It had a direct influence in that we realized America loves it when I leave the country. America’s favorite thing is when Conan O'Brien is gone. We obviously got a terrific response from that show. It reminded me how much I love traveling, and how much I love doing comedy on the road. The comedy is really organic and the interactions are pure. And I thought, Let’s keep this going. Sona has been talking about Armenia and her culture for the six years we’ve been together. And the idea just popped in one day: What if I took Sona, my assistant, back to Armenia? We had this crazy adventure, and we’re really proud of the way it turned out.

So Sona, was this trip something that you’ve been planting in his mind all these years?

Sona Movsesian: If I was, I guess I wasn’t doing it on purpose. But I’m glad I did it. Because I ended up getting a trip to Armenia out of it. If it was subconscious, good for me.

O'Brien: It’s not that subconscious when every third Post-it I get from her says Go to Armenia.

Sona and I are always joking about my culture, her culture, how different our cultures are. And then it just became a natural: Let’s go to Armenia!  The episode begins with me going to her parents. There’s a massive [Armenian] community here in Los Angeles. We decide [I'll] express concern that Sona is losing touch with her Armenian roots. I talk to her grandparents and parents, and they have a wish-list of things they would like to have happen in Armenia. And then we accomplish most of what we set out to do.

In the preview material, a lot of the gags had what I’d call a Western bias – kind of poking fun at Armenian culture. But I’d suspect there was a little more to your visit.

O'Brien: A lot of the laughs are at my expense, sort of in the flavor of the Cuban episode. When I travel somewhere, obviously there's an “idiot abroad” quality . . . There are some moments that are extremely powerful that were unlike anything in the Cuba episode. My favorites are where you see me interacting with the people – where they’re laughing at my attempts to be Armenian. 

Sona, what about you? What did you take away from this trip? Because it’s a little more personal for you to go back to your homeland.

Movsesian: I grew up in Los Angeles [but] I’ve learned a lot about my community throughout my life — the language, the culture, the history . . . And then to see them in person was really cathartic. I think going under these circumstances too was great — to go with someone like Conan, who’s willing to learn a lot about the culture. The writers did a lot of research before we went. And so it was, for me, a very profound trip.

On that idea of research: There was a horrible genocide in Armenia around World War I. As many as a million-and-a-half people were killed. Is that part of what you’ll be reporting when you air this segment?

O'Brien: Yes, it is part of the show. You don't get around [the genocide]. This idea that everything is supposed to be funny is mistaken. I do have a section I’m immensely proud of where that is the focus of the show . . . for a whole act. What’s interesting to me is when you show it to people, they don’t see a disconnect. 

That raises a bigger question: Do you think there’s a larger role that you, and people like you, can play in getting out in the world and bringing it back to a larger audience?

O'Brien: Two things have happened. The world has gotten a lot smaller than it was even 20 years ago. We’re all in each other’s pockets. I flew [to Qatar] with the First Lady . . . and I was back doing shows on Monday. At the same time, I grew up in a world where there used to be one talk show — Johnny Carson — and there are now 650 talk shows. 

And so I don’t think it’s a responsibility, but I look at it like an opportunity. For me, it just fits well. I actually think I’m funnier when I have less control — when I jump into situations and cultures where I’m completely unfamiliar. You get really human moments. We live in a world where people like to see me thrown curve balls. And my favorite moments are with these people who speak a different language, and who don’t know who I am, and if I can get them to laugh — and yes, they’re laughing at me, but that’s extraordinarily satisfying.

At the end of the day you feel like— between Cuba and this show — you do feel like it’s this weird form of diplomacy now, where if you do it right and you get the right balance, you can actually make connections with people.  

There’s a part of this episode that was really touching to me. I’m in Armenia, in Yerevan. I’m told there are a bunch of fans waiting for me outside and I’m thinking, Armenian fans? That’s interesting. I go outside — they’re all Syrian refugees. There were about seven or eight teenagers. They fled to Armenia and took shelter there a couple of years ago when things really got rough. And it’s heartbreaking. They could not be smarter, funnier, nicer, sharper. They know the show from YouTube. They were citing certain bits. They were so happy to see me that we ended up going out to the village square and just dancing around because there was some sort of disco celebration going on. I remember I called my wife [and] I just said, "That was one of the great experiences of my life."

And in those moments, I’m so grateful for the Internet. It’s just incredible that I can have a connection with people from Syria who are living in Armenia and they just like some bits I do on the show, and we actually meet, and they get to be on the show. That’s magical to me.  

Sona, I want to ask you about your relationship both in front of and behind the cameras. In the clips we’ve seen, you’re kind of playing the straight man to Conan’s comedy. Is that reflective in some ways of your work dynamic generally?

Movsesian: I think so. In the six years I’ve worked for Conan, he’s become such a huge part of my life. I tell people all the time he’s like a brother to me . . . When it comes to entertainment, it’s the closest relationship you can have with someone else that’s not like a writing partner. It can either be really awful — like a “Devil Wears Prada” situation where you become codependent in a dangerous way — or it can be . . . healthy and beneficial.

O'Brien: What would most fascinate people who saw us around the office is people think, Oh, he’s the TV host and she’s the assistant. The cliché in that situation is her meekly submitting to my insane whims. What really amuses people is how much Sona yells at me. There are so many times when I say like, "Hey, did my car get washed?" And instead of her saying, "I’m sorry, I forgot to do that," she goes, "Oh, boo-hoo. TV host didn’t get his car washed. What a baby!" People who are unfamiliar with our dynamic are like, What the hell’s going on?

Movsesian: In my defense, you do start crying and throwing a tantrum if you don’t get your car washed.

O'Brien: I do cry.

But it actually sounds like you enjoy having an assistant who is not servile.

O'Brien: You know, I think it’s a bigger part of the show in general. My head writer yells at me. People make fun of me. Andy Richter constantly mocks me in front of the interns at rehearsal, and that’s the dynamic I’m comfortable with. I grew up in a large family — I was the middle child — and people gave each other a hard time. I’m not comfortable in a zero-gravity environment. I like the gravity of people holding me accountable. It makes it all feel real, and it turns a very weird situation — where I have an outsized amount of power at the “Conan” show — into a real situation.

Conan O'Brien's Armenian travel episode airs Tuesday, Nov. 17 at 11 p.m. on TBS.

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