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Conan O'Brien is defining a new way forward for former late night hosts

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The travel series "Conan O'Brien Must Go" opens with narration from a voice that sounds suspiciously like the German actor and director Werner Herzog. It delivers a warning about the appearance of an unscrupulous stranger traveling to foreign lands.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN O'BRIEN MUST GO")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Behold the defiler. Once a proud talk show host, he has been driven by a changing ecosystem to a drier and harsher climate, the weekly podcast.

KELLY: (Laughter) This monologue kicks off every episode of the series, which features the former late-night talk show host visiting fans in Norway, Argentina, Thailand and Ireland. Well, our TV critic Eric Deggans has called this show, which is now on the Max streaming service, side-splitting evidence of life beyond late-night. Hi, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey. I am resisting with every fiber of my being doing a Werner Herzog impersonation. I'm going to spare you and the audience that, but just know inside, I really want to do it.

KELLY: If you lapse into it as we progress, you will be forgiven. I am, I have to say, struggling to wrap my head around what exactly this is. So just tell me more about the series and what O'Brien's bringing to it.

DEGGANS: Sure, sure. Well, I should say first that both O'Brien and a spokesperson for Max wouldn't even tell me for sure if Herzog is doing that narration, which somehow makes it even more funny. But the actual series is pretty straightforward. So Conan O'Brien shows up on the doorstep of some fans overseas that he met through one of his podcasts to ask about their lives, visit cool places in the country where they live, and kind of indulge in his unique mix of smartly silly improvisational comedy. So in the first episode, they show part of his video call with a Norwegian fan who is also a musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN O'BRIEN MUST GO")

CONAN O'BRIEN: I want to be a hit on the Norwegian pop charts. Is that a possibility?

JARLE WALLEVIK: That is an above 0% possibility.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: And then O'Brien winds up singing on one of the guy's songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VELKOMMEN TIL KLUBBEN")

O'BRIEN: (Singing) I'm looking at the fjord. There's salmon in the sea. My baby says she's bored.

DEGGANS: So eventually, he also sings with them in concert. So it is quirky, improvisational, but it's also pretty entertaining.

KELLY: Yeah, well, you can hear Conan O'Brien himself is having fun here. I mean, he - again, if you know Conan O'Brien, you know him as the late-night talk show guy. But those audiences are declining. Is this him trying to figure out the next chapter? Like, what's the way forward?

DEGGANS: For him, yes. I mean, you know, his - he had a show on TBS that ended about three years ago, and there was this question of how he would continue on. But he's developed his company into a home for interesting podcasts. He's produced shows for other comics. He sold that company for millions to SiriusXM. And he found a way to turn his comedic style into a bunch of different projects.

He even turned an appearance on the talk show "Hot Ones." Now, you may have heard of this. It's where celebrities try to answer questions while eating wings cooked in hot sauces. He turned this into a viral hit. He was dousing his wings and hands in hot sauce and just going crazy. Let's listen to a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "CONAN O'BRIEN NEEDS A DOCTOR WHILE EATING SPICY WINGS

HOT ONES")

O'BRIEN: Yeah. I've never felt that alive.

SEAN EVANS: Yeah, that's - I love it. I love it. Me, too. I'm right here.

O'BRIEN: I'm erect for the first time in 15 years.

DEGGANS: So his skill is in doing something unexpected and absurd and totally committing to that bit, no matter how much it annihilates his taste buds.

KELLY: OK, so if this is Conan O'Brien unleashed and charting a new path, what about the late-night TV industry writ large?

DEGGANS: Sure. Well, what Conan is showing is the value of meeting fans where they are, in this case, literally. So he's unshackled from the typical late-night TV convention. And if you like that, you'll like this series, and there might be a lesson there about unshackling other comics who are still doing the late-night TV game.

KELLY: All right, I am craving hot wings now. Thank you so much, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

KELLY: That is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLAH LAS' "RASPBERRY JAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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