Growing up as a Korean American, I rarely saw representations of my culture, feelings, ideas and experiences in Western mainstream culture and media. In 2016, a box of snacks changed that. Sent by a fan from Korea, the snacks, along with a letter written on an SAT prep form, would kickstart Conan O’Brien’s adventure to South Korea. Further, it would cement my love for O’Brien’s work as a comedian and host who truly cares for and sees the beauty in the cultures around the world, rather than ignoring them or, worse yet, simply using them as a means of performance.
Last night, O’Brien ended his self-titled Conan show after 11 seasons on TBS. As the longest-tenured late-night host on air, O’Brien has become one of the most recognizable names in the industry, and has been able to garner a globe-spanning, devoted audience. His footprint extends even to places like South Korea, where O’Brien’s show does not air but has nonetheless become well-known thanks to the powers of the internet.
Much to his own surprise, O’Brien has achieved popularity in South Korea, even making headlines on popular Korean news platforms like YTN and Yonhap News Agency. Korean YouTube videos celebrate his wacky, yet awkwardly charming personality, from meeting a bear cub to calling his staffers’ parents for tips on improving the show. Even without experiencing the traditional episode format, Korean audiences have been able to get to know O’Brien’s personality and content on an intimate level.
By taking his show to various corners of the world, O’Brien has been able to tackle tough subjects with both tact and empathy, as well as a splash of well-timed comedic quips.
Part of that is due to the transition from broadcast entertainment to the rise of the digital landscape. Suddenly, late-night hosts have had to compete for the attention of the internet, in addition to their time slots. Rather than being cowed by the upheaval, O’Brien took the changes in stride, transforming a moment that could have spelled doom for his show into opportunities to reach a wider audience base, particularly in younger viewers.
Take his “Conan Without Borders” episodes, in which O’Brien travels to various locations and cultures around the world, which have become some of O’Brien’s most popular clips on YouTube.
By taking his show to various corners of the world, O’Brien has been able to tackle tough subjects such as the continued political and geographical separation of South and North Korea resulting from the Korean War with both tact and empathy, as well as a splash of well-timed comedic quips. Time and time again, O’Brien has gone beyond the standard sit-down-behind-the-desk format to discuss heavy political topics. He has worked to immerse himself in various cultures and use his platform to shine a spotlight on aspects of a culture that might not, at first glance, speak to a mainstream American audience (e.g., spending time in a Korean “PC bang” or visiting the Noryangjin fish market).
He’s also avoided coming off as vapid or tone-deaf when approaching heavier topics. With the late-night show domain dominated by white hosts and white writing staff who are unable to meet the challenge of talking about multicultural, political issues in a meaningful way, O’Brien’s approach to cultural appreciation has been a refreshing change in the television industry.
As a Korean American, O’Brien’s “Conan in Korea” episode held particular significance to me and my family. At the dinner table, we would laugh and reminisce about O’Brien’s attempts to learn Korean, getting into a snowball fight with a Buddhist monk and adopting an octopus from a fish market and subsequently naming it Samuel. (O’Brien, while unable to bring Samuel home with him to the United States, was able to find him a home at Coex Aquarium in Seoul.)
The fact that O’Brien chose to bring along Korean-born American actor Steven Yeun, with whom O’Brien has built up a longstanding friendship throughout the years, to join him in Korea meant a great deal to me and my family. Yeun, who is well-known for his role as Glenn in The Walking Dead and his Oscar-nominated performance in Minari, has spoken in previous interviews about the big influence his Korean heritage has had on him, not only as an actor but as a person. O’Brien not only acknowledged this, he went a step further and took the time to celebrate, learn about, and explore Yeun’s Korean background, getting to know Yeun as a whole person rather than simply as another actor.
The result was both informative and absurdly funny. O’Brien showcased a wide breadth of aspects and nuances of Korean culture and stayed true to his trademark blend of bizarre yet entertainingly riveting style. From making an intensely colorful, almost hallucinatory music video with Yeun and Korean music industry kingpin Park Jin-young, to guest-starring in a Korean soap opera featuring the sort of heartwarming-bordering-on-cringey dialogue that is characteristic of K-dramas, O’Brien has been able to tailor his content to audiences regardless of whether they are familiar with Korean culture or not.
As a Korean American who has visited South Korea a couple times, I’ve felt like an outsider as soon as I step off the plane. That’s not an uncommon experience for anyone with roots elsewhere. In “Conan in Korea,” even Yeun, who was born in Korea yet lives in the United States, has moments that demonstrate the subtle cultural gaps between Korean Americans and Koreans, from giving an unreturned greeting to not being able to identify certain foods when they go to eat a traditional Korean meal. Referring to pajeon, or Korean pancakes, Yeun remarks, “It has whatever my mom puts in it, I don’t know. I just eat it” — an explanation I’ve uttered countless times when asked about my lunch by friends in school. With his quick wit, O’Brien spun the moment of awkwardness into comedy: “You’re sort of like Anthony Bourdain, if he knew absolutely nothing.” The zinger is a breezy one, but seeing pajeon humor on American TV feels meaningful. Keeping Yeun’s moments like this in the episode was an editorial choice that I could see myself in.
Even as he entered cultures and places foreign to him, O’Brien has been able to stay true to his comedic roots and maintain a standard of respect. This is true of all of O’Brien’s “Conan Without Borders” episodes, through which he has interacted with a multitude of people who, regardless of whether they are familiar with O’Brien’s show and popularity or not, are more than happy to get in on the jokes with him and bond with him. Though he stands out both physically (with his bright orange hair and 6’4” stature) and culturally, the episodes highlight how he’s been able to immerse himself in the cultures he interacts with, and how, amid all his wisecracks and goofy antics, he falls in love with the places and the people he visits.
And the feeling is mutual. If the so-called “rock star” reception O’Brien received as he arrived in Korea is any indication, it’s that he has earned his place as one of the great entertainers of the world. To Conan, from a deeply emotional fan: Thank you for caring about and appreciating my culture and for making the world that much better all these years.
Observation Points is a semi-regular discussion of key details in our culture.