TV Review: ‘Conan in Cuba’

While some latenight hosts are gone but not forgotten, at times it seems as if Conan O’Brien is forgotten, but not gone – having settled into a comfortable but relatively low-profile niche on TBS. So if nothing else “Conan in Cuba,” his contribution to diplomatic relations, provided a reminder of the inventiveness O’Brien brings to the party, while generally reinforcing the narrowness of that appeal. Perhaps foremost, using all the footage in one super-sized episode felt like too much of a good thing, and the stunt would have benefited from slicing, dicing and spreading the highlights over multiple nights.

O’Brien provided a brief history of U.S.-Cuba relations to set up his comedic mission – namely, to meet the Cuban people (OK, as many as a 75-minute episode would allow) and connect with them on a human level.

What ensued, though, was merely a series of traditional latenight-style field pieces, with the host as the waif-like boob engaging in a George Plimpton-like series of stunts, from trying to sing with a salsa band to sampling Cuban rum to attempting to master rolling a cigar.

There were, inevitably, some very funny moments, such as O’Brien ad-libbing a song as he stretched out on a bar or ogling his dance partner (replayed, naturally, in slow motion). But the net effect quickly became repetitive, having made the point that the host could elicit laughs from Cubans who are unfamiliar with him strictly by virtue of his clownish, rubber-legged antics.

As a cultural study and travel show, the episode also remained limited – at best a series of snapshots, albeit as filtered through O’Brien’s quirky prism. Part of that, obviously, had to do with restrictions the crew faced filming in Cuba, requiring the host to do quite a lot of what he generally does best: Improvise.

At the end, O’Brien closed by calling his four days in Havana “one of the greatest experiences of my life,” lauding the vivacity and warmth of the people. And even through the comedy, that sentiment was evident throughout.

Even so, at the risk of raising the ire of Team Coco, in terms of “Conan in Cuba” working as a fully realized TV special, let’s just say close, but no cigar.

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