Entertainment Talk

Conan, Michael Palin overdue for a crossover

Why Michael Palin, Conan O’Brien would make a dream tag team
Conan O'Brien was admittedly not well-traveled the last time he had Michael Palin as a talk-show guest. Fast-forward 13 years, and he had practically followed Palin's lead as a comedian pursuing international intrigue. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Turner)

Times were much simpler for Conan O’Brien when he last had Michael Palin on his show.

Palin, who rose to fame in his native Great Britain as the youngest member of Monty Python, made four appearances on NBC’s Late Night during the O’Brien era.

In September 1997, he was coming off Fierce Creatures, his second movie co-starring John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline. But it was also the year of his adventure miniseries, Full Circle with Michael Palin.

After accepting two more invitations, Palin returned to Late Night in June 2005 to recount his Himalayan exploits. If his scaling back on comedic work was not already apparent to mainstream American audiences, it was by then.

Coming off BBC’s six-episode release of Himalaya with Michael Palin and a sister book the year prior, Palin dished up on tackling the mountains and Nepalese cuisine.

To say nothing of several other changes since, O’Brien’s dearth of overseas experience stands out from then. In introducing the premise of Palin’s visit, he claimed, “I’ve been to Paris. That’s about it.”

There is no indication this chat had an integral role, if any, in proliferating O’Brien’s mileage over the next 13-plus years. Then again, he has never unequivocally denied that notion either.

Regardless, what he has done in this decade and announced last week casts his latest Palin interview in an intriguing light. Through TBS’ Conan, he has literally covered almost as much ground as Palin’s documentarian side.

If nothing else, the two have that much more to discuss now. They are a British and American epitome of side-splitting celebrities who have taken their profiles on serious, curious adventures abroad. Their industry’s equivalent of sportswriters who cross over to sociopolitical commentary.

At this stage, a special studio reunion would be the least they can offer their crossover fans. Such an arrangement could even spawn a dream joint road show of the one-two punch. But first, there would be no better conversational complement to measure and reflect on O’Brien’s completed travels.

It is hard to rule Palin out as an influence on O’Brien in broadening his repertoire. After all, the man who established his persona as a goofy, lanky leprechaun has assessed Python’s comedic inspiration at length.

Watching Palin’s last Late Night drop-in, the infectious intrigue over life beyond mere laughs is palpable.

Naturally, as part of the project he was plugging, Palin had tried his hand at Mount Everest. In recounting that experience, he singled out a Sherpa guide who previously spent a night at Everest’s summit upon scaling it.

“This man has actually slept on the top of Everest,” Palin told O’Brien. “And that, I think, is the definition of cool.”

With equal earnestness, O’Brien agreed if he witnessed that, “I would think that is the coolest man in the world.”

Of the Himayalas in general, O’Brien also said, “I can’t imagine going there.”

In the mid-2000s, Conanites could not imagine their favorite host going anywhere besides an hour up on the TV docket. On the American talk-show scene, Jimmy Kimmel Live! was only in its third year on ABC. Otherwise, O’Brien, who is four years Kimmel’s senior, was the baby among late-night hosts on the single-digit networks.

When he last interviewed Palin, O’Brien was set to replace Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. The powers that be at NBC had declared as much nine months prior. When the elder statesman departed on schedule in 2009, the farmhand would take the hallowed slot once held by Johnny Carson and coveted by eventual CBS rival David Letterman.

Alas, the smooth succession hit a snag after seven months and change, emphasis on change. Almighty ratings spearheaded Leno’s jump from primetime back to the standard Tonight Show start of 11:35.

In response, before a mid-2010s wave sweeping NBC and CBS could make him the elder statesman amongst network hosts, O’Brien broke off for basic cable. In between, he got a jumpstart to his hew habit of international travel. Shortly before his new show launched in November 2010, his on-location American Express ad from India debuted.

For nearly all of this calendar decade, TBS has been his abode for one hour per night, four nights per week. Until the end of this past week, that is.

After Thursday’s monologue, O’Brien took to his desk to announce another upheaval in his late-night regimen. This one, if nothing else, comes across as strictly voluntary.

Conan will cease producing new episodes for the balance of 2018. When it resumes in the New Year, it will have scaled itself back to a half-hour.

Amidst his full-hour finale, O’Brien hinted at critical reflective thinking in the wake of a personal milestone. Dating back to his Tonight Show tenure, he has been working before the camera for a quarter-century.

Explaning the shake-up to Conan, he expressed interest in devoting more time and energy to travel specials. He summarized the crux as “silly remote pieces, interviewing really interesting people. Really just focusing on the stuff that we love the most.”

That elaboration stands out for coinciding with the wake of Palin’s latest overseas excursion. This past spring, he gained access to some of North Korea’s most reticent sections. The resultant project premiered for U.S. audiences at the end of September.

In the documentary, Palin’s trademark wit is almost as repressed as his requisite bravery. As Guardian reviewer Lucy Mangan assessed, “Palin the presenter has become no less amiable or avuncular with age, soothingly gentle.” In other words, he has no intent to ruffle feathers in any way.

Contrast that with his start in show business. A half-century ago, Palin and other eventual Pythons were breaking out with How to Irritate People. He then hit mainstream status in his homeland via Monty Python’s Flyng Circus.

With its TV show and smattering of movies, the troupe’s popularity spilled over to America and elsewhere. Palin augmented that with a BAFTA-winning performance in 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda, opposite fellow Python Cleese plus the U.S.-born Curtis and Kline.

No later than the next calendar year, he was immersed in his second entertainment career. He was back on BBC with his comprehensive Around the World in 80 Days. Expressly emulating the Jules Verne novel, he covered countries in four continents for the series.

Subsequent Palin projects have gone to previously untouched parts of Europe. Beyond that, he has covered the polar caps, the Sahara and Brazil. (The former two undoubtedly drew the delight of Python fans who are fond of “Scott of the Antarctic.”)

For his TBS show, O’Brien has ventured to Armenia, Cuba and Israel plus a host of more inviting nations. As it happens, he also beat Palin to the demilitarized zone on the North-South Korean border by two years.

And to think that, in June 2005, he was merely referencing food when he told Palin, “you have to be kind of fearless” in exotic overseas locations.

Across the sea from the DMZ, O’Brien was in Japan for a TBS special that will plug part of the hole in his late-night sabbatical. When that airs, it will still be another month-plus before Conan rejoins the lineup as a regular.

By that point, he will have more than his natural-born American fan base to catch up with. Even if he has done so unconsciously, he has emulated Palin’s intriguing path.

Talks of travel-oriented teamwork between these two world-beating representatives of different generations and leading Western nationalities are long in order.

Al Daniel

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