- Hosted NBC’s "Late Night with Conan O’Brien" from 1993 to 2009
- Hosted NBC’s "Tonight Show" from 2009 to 2010
- Hosted "Conan" on TBS from 2010 until his retirement from late-night television in June 2021
Conan Christopher O’Brien was born on April 18, 1963, in Brookline, Massachusetts. His father, Dr. Thomas O’Brien, was the head of microbiology at Peter Brigham Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School. His mother, Ruth Reardon O’Brien, was a partner at a Boston-area law firm until her retirement in 1997.
Conan O’Brien attended Harvard University, where he was twice elected president of the parody magazine The Harvard Lampoon and earned a BA in American History in 1985. Upon completing his studies, O’Brien moved to Los Angeles to write for the HBO series Not Necessarily the News. He also performed with an improv group called The Groundlings.
From 1988-91, O’Brien wrote for the NBC comedy program Saturday Night Live. In 1992-93, he was a writer and supervising producer for the animated FOX series The Simpsons. And from September 13, 1993 through February 20, 2009, he hosted NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien, based at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
After Jay Leno’s contract with NBC’s Tonight Show expired in 2009, O’Brien was hired to host the program from its headquarters in California. But because of a dispute with NBC, O’Brien ended his contract in 2010 and moved his late night show, Conan, to the TBS cable television network. He continued to host this program on TBS until his retirement from late-night television in June 2021.
Political Commentary on O’Brien’s Television Programs
More than once, O’Brien has described his humor as being largely non-political. On his June 13, 2016 show on TBS, for instance, he said: “I am not a pundit, I am not an expert and I’ve always, always made it a policy to stick to my job, and keep my opinions to myself.” Similarly, in a February 2020 interview at Oxford Union, O’Brien said that while many other talk shows are “all about politics,” he prefers to do “really silly comedy” that will not become dated when the news cycle changes.
But in fact, O’Brien does frequently inject politics into his programs – sometimes humorously, and sometimes in serious tones. And while he pokes fun at people on both sides of the political spectrum, his harsher tones are reserved for conservatives and Republicans, depicting them as racists, sexists, reprobates, and fools.
In September 2012, O’Brien derided Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the token conservative co-host of The View, for having asked President Barack Obama a serious question about the American economy. Though Hasselbeck delivered her question to the president in a respectful, deferential tone, O’Brien said: “Who the hell’s Elisabeth Hasselbeck?! … She won a reality show [Survivor] — she didn’t even win! She was like, FIFTH!” Then, doing an impression of Hasselbeck as an angry inquisitor, O’Brien said: “Hey, leader of the free world! Answer this!”
When conservative Texas senator Ted Cruz announced his presidential candidacy in March 2015, O’Brien said of Cruz: “Yeah, he pledged to lead America boldly forward into the late 1950s…. Cruz just released a presidential campaign video and it’s in Spanish. I thought that was interesting. Yeah. Cruz said ‘it’s important for me to reach out to the people I’m trying to deport.’”
In May 2015, O’Brien used the publicity that Bruce Jenner’s gender transition to “Caitlyn Jenner” was receiving at that time, as a springboard from which to launch jokes aimed at Republicans. When O’Brien sidekick Andy Richter asked the host to predict who would win the Republican presidential nomination, O’Brien replied, “A white guy!” Richter then asked, “Why are conservatives so reluctant to call Caitlyn Jenner, a woman?” O’Brien answered, “Cuz they were already burned once by [conservative pundit] Ann Coulter!”
In May 2015 as well, O’Brien joked that the eminent brain surgeon Dr. Ben Carson, a black conservative who was seeking the Republican presidential nomination, was “the only African American who wants to go back to the way things were 200 years ago.” “As a neurosurgeon who’s also a member of the Tea Party,” O’Brien added, “Carson’s specialty is removing that part of the brain that believes in climate change.”
In June 2015, O’Brien targeted Christian conservatives for their alleged contempt for homosexuals. Evangelicals, he said, “are starting to take a second look at the Bible’s stance on gay people … noting that if you count Joseph and God, Jesus had two daddies.”
In July 2015, O’Brien mocked former Republican governor Jeb Bush for his recent public denunciation of the Confederate flag. Portraying Bush’s stance as a new – and politically expedient – position, O’Brien said: “Jeb Bush recently described the Confederate flag as racist. Yeah. Bush said he’s long opposed the flag, going all the way back to at least late last Thursday … Maybe Friday.” But in fact, as the Washington Post and other publications pointed out, Bush had begun speaking out against the Confederate flag at least 15 years earlier.
In August 2015, O’Brien joked that the mothers of each of the two remaining GOP presidential candidates, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, would have terminated their pregnancies if abortion had been legal at the time. Said O’Brien: “Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are teaming up to defund Planned Parenthood. Yeah. Experts believe it could backfire since people like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are the reason there is a Planned Parenthood. That’s the only problem.”
In March 2016, O’Brien joked about the completely unsubstantiated smears in which the National Enquirer had accused Ted Cruz of marital infidelities. “Ted Cruz is being accused of having affairs with five different women,” said O’Brien. “Five! Five different women! Yeah, and five different women are accused of having terrible taste in men.”
In the wake of a June 2016 mass shooting in which an Islamic terrorist had killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in Orlando, Florida, O’Brien used his television show as a platform from which to make a political statement about guns: “I simply do not understand why anybody in this country is allowed to purchase and own a semi-automatic assault rifle. It makes no sense to me. These are weapons of war and they have no place in civilian life.”
On two separate programs in 2016, O’Brien likened Donald Trump to infamous fascist dictators of ages past. On one occasion, the comic said that Trump reminded him of Benito Mussolini in the way he sculpted his hair and interacted with crowds: “I like that Mussolini thing he does.” On another show, O’Brien joked that Trump had said that “Germany hasn’t had a great leader since the 1940’s” – a reference to Adolf Hitler.
After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced in September 2019 that Democrats would move forward with a formal impeachment INQUIRY against President Trump, O’Brien said: “Huge news…. Today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal Impeachment Inquiry into President Trump over his inappropriate conduct with Ukraine. That’s a big story. Big thing that’s happening. Yeah, Trump was furious and said, ‘This is nuts. I’ve done way worse things. This? I’ve killed people. What are you talking about?’”
In February 2020, comedian Jim Carrey appeared on O’Brien’s TBS show to promote his graphic paintings of President Trump. O’Brien introduced the segment by labeling Carrey’s work as “compelling” and “provocative.” One of Carrey’s paintings depicted President Trump being wrestled to the ground by North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. Another showed an obese, shirtless Trump devouring a bowl of ice cream. When O’Brien said he “didn’t understand” the message of that painting, Carrey clarified: “That’s our President… Eating ice cream is a sensual experience.”
Political Commentary on O’Brien’s Podcast and TBS/Netflix Series
In addition to his nightly TBS show, O’Brien also hosts a podcast titled Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. He is also the host of Conan without Borders, a Netflix series (originally aired on TBS) that shows O’Brien traveling to various countries around the world.
As of early March 2020, approximately sixty guests had appeared on O’Brien’s podcast. Most of them were leftists in their political and ideological orientation. They included outspoken show-business figures like Sarah Silverman, Judd Apatow, and Patton Oswalt; two former Democratic First Ladies, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama; a former First Daughter, Chelsea Clinton; and an entertainer who was also a Democratic politician, Al Franken.
In one episode of the podcast, O’Brien interacted warmly with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, bonding with them on such topics as parenthood, sexism, the proposition that “gender is a spectrum,” and the greatness of teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg (O’Brien: “there can’t be a better climate advocate”). In another episode, O’Brien lavished praise on Michelle Obama (“You and your husband were giving of yourself long before you got into office”) and assented to her claim that virtually every negative comment ever made about her or her husband was racist. And in yet another episode, O’Brien lauded the “brave,” “impressive” comic Hannah Gadsby, famous for a 2018 Netflix stand-up routine — described by O’Brien as “a seismic cultural event” — in which she set comedy aside in order to rant angrily about her victimhood at the hands of the patriarchy.
But most noteworthy of all is Conan without Borders. Though some episodes are largely nonpolitical, others are highly politicized. Consider, for instance, O’Brien’s February 2015 visit to Cuba, which took place shortly after President Obama had lifted travel restrictions to that country. The show began with music and dancing in the streets, and with O’Brien declaring that Havana “is alive with music.” The host implied that Cuba’s poverty was entirely the fault of the U.S. embargo. He described the U.S.-backed Batista government of the 1950s – but not the Castro regime – as a “dictatorship.” And he claimed that his intention was simply to meet the Cuban people, not deal with politics – a claim that allowed him to avoid addressing the harsh reality of life under Communism, even as he took jab after jab at America.
At some points, O’Brien’s approach was particularly tone-deaf. When he jocularly asked a Spanish teacher how to say “I’m not gay, I’m just on vacation,” he seemed oblivious to the fact that he was in a country where people have been summarily executed for being gay. Moreover, O’Brien pondered what a shame it would be if Havana’s broken-down ruins — which he said were “bursting with character” — were to be replaced by The Gap and other U.S. chain stores.
If O’Brien’s Cuba trip came in response to Obama’s lifting of travel restrictions, his TBS/Netflix episode on Mexico, which aired on March 1, 2017, was inspired by Donald Trump’s plans to build a border wall. Again, viewers were treated to multiple images of Latinos dancing and singing merrily. There was no mention of Mexico’s sky-high murder rate, of the systematic extortion and kidnapping of tourists, of the control of whole swaths of the country by drug cartels and terrorist groups, or of the dependence of the Mexican economy on remittances sent home by people living illegally in the U.S.
O’Brien repeatedly pushed the idea that only a bigot would want to build a border wall; he encouraged people on the street to say ugly things about President Trump; he contrasted Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, an alleged front man for crime syndicates and drug cartels, favorably to Trump; and in an interview with former Mexican president Vicente Fox — who has called Trump a “dictator” and who concluded his appearance with O’Brien by raising a middle finger to Trump – O’Brien seconded Fox’s opposition to the “very silly” border-wall proposal.
Like his jaunt to Mexico, O’Brien’s journey to Haiti was also triggered by Trump. After the president allegedly called Haiti a “shithole country” in a closed-door meeting in January 2018, O’Brien booked a trip there, because, he said, if Trump did not like Haitians, “they must be lovely people.” But this was disingenuous in the extreme: Trump was not putting down the people of Haiti, but was lamenting that they live in a nation beset by primitive health care, a corrupt judiciary, rampant gang violence, illegal incarceration, summary executions, police torture, and child trafficking. Apropos of the then-ongoing U.S. government shutdown, O’Brien said: “Thank God I’m in Haiti, where the government actually works.”
To the extent that he did acknowledge Haiti’s problems, O’Brien acted as if they were all President Trump’s fault. “You are better at foreign policy than the president of the United States right now,” the comic told a man whom he met on the street. Confronted at one point by an angry, anti-American crowd, O’Brien read a speech to them in Haitian Creole in which he called them wonderful, called their country beautiful, and smeared President Trump. In one segment, O’Brien had a number of Haitians tell jokes about Trump; in another, he told a group of Haitian children that Trump was incompetent and that America “has not been good to Haiti.”
What went unmentioned throughout the episode, was that the real American villains in Haiti were people whom O’Brien greatly admired – the Clintons. After the 2010 earthquake, Bill Clinton, who was the United Nations’ point man for aid to Haiti, and Hillary Clinton, who as U.S. Secretary of State administered American aid to Haiti, set up reconstruction contracts with firms that made huge “donations” to their family foundation. The reconstruction ended up being a debacle: the Haitians got next to nothing, while the Clinton foundation raked in millions of dollars. As scholar Bruce Bawer notes, “The Clintons are so universally despised in Haiti that it’s hard to believe that none of the people Conan met mentioned them; perhaps that footage ended up on the cutting-room floor.”
In September 2017, O’Brien broadcast an episode on Israel, which began by showing a map that included a land mass marked “Palestine” immediately adjacent to the Jewish state. Whereas in Cuba, Mexico, and Haiti, O’Brien was almost entirely silent regarding those nations’ astronomical crime rates, abysmal human-rights records, and failing economies, he characterized Israel as a “controversial” place that is “complex and polarizing.” Ridiculing President Trump’s peace efforts in the region, O’Brien joked that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was reading a book called Middle East Peace for Dummies. Apropos of Trump’s plan to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, O’Brien displayed a map of a future Jerusalem in which a massive Trump Hotel would figure prominently.
O’Brien eventually visited the Palestinian territories – specifically, the West Bank – where he delivered yet another lecture on the undesirability of border walls. He also showed images of Palestinians dancing – but not building rockets, digging terror tunnels, or teaching children to hate Jews.
Notably, O’Brien’s Israel episode was not aired in its original version. Guests attending a Los Angeles screening on the night before the episode first appeared on TBS were treated to a sequence in which, according to a Jerusalem Post article by Amy Spiro, a Palestinian man “discussed his son, who he said was killed by IDF soldiers during a riot.” During the post-screening question-and-answer session, wrote Spiro, “some audience members expressed their discomfort with the footage. What was the context of the killing and who was at fault? And if you’re going to show Palestinian sorrow and suffering – what of Israeli suffering? What of Israeli victims of terror, who have watched their families be slaughtered? Or those who live in range of rockets from Gaza?” On the basis of these negative reactions, the sequence in question was cut from the final version of the program that was shown on TBS.
Spiro also shed light on a scene showing O’Brien’s run-in with a group of screaming anti-Israel activists from the United States. In the version aired on TBS (and later Netflix), the encounter is cut in such a way as to make the activists’ arguments seem relatively reasonable. But in the full version of the exchange that was posted online, the sadistic nature of their views was plain for all to see. As Spiro noted, “many incendiary and false accusations were made,” including the proclamation that – in the words of the protesters — “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” That phrase has long been a common refrain among Jew-haters who believe that all of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea should be Palestinian – meaning that Israel should no longer exist. But the footage that ultimately appeared on O’Brien’s program was edited in such a way as to make hatemongers who seek Israel’s destruction look like lovers of peace.