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Conan in Israel: Can a Comedian Cover a 45-sided Conflict in 40 Minutes?

The special episode on Israel showed a comedian on a mission

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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A screenshot shows Conan O'Brien standing in front of the separation barrier in the West Bank.
A screenshot shows Conan O'Brien standing in front of the separation barrier in the West Bank.Credit: Screenshot / Team Coco / YouTube
Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

Conan O’Brien's special episode on Israel aired on Tuesday night and with it, if nothing else, the talk show host has given the world the most efficient history of the Middle East, from Biblical times to Donald Trump, in under a minute. Then with all the wars, peace treaties and political issues like settlements and occupation out of the way, he heads to Rothschild Boulevard in the heart of Tel Aviv to discover what we already know: Israeli men are beautiful.

“I’m talking to handsome Israeli man number 3,000,” he says to yet another attractive fella. Also on Rothschild: Jared Kushner as the butt of a joke featuring “The Idiot’s Guide to Middle East Peace,” and a family picnic that becomes an impromptu Goldstar commercial. The Israelis are clearly loving it. Selfies abound, a car blocks traffic so its driver can schmooze with the visiting comedian. Strolling the Tel Aviv beaches, O’Brien attacks a substantial crowd and an Elvis impersonator, who he invites into the life guard booth for a sing-along.

Of course, it’s easy to be all fun and games in carefree Tel Aviv. But O’Brien, who made a whirlwind trip to Israel in August to film the episode, makes Jerusalem feel like a blast as well. Overlooking the Old City, he considers how the U.S. president might develop the contested place, with a Trump Hotel and Casino, featuring a fountain spouting hummus. (And Mexico’s going to pay for it, natch.) In the Jewish Quarter, O’Brien is taught the local skill of haggling and somehow ends up in the home of David, an elderly man with five children and 19 grandchildren. They don’t say much. O’Brien’s portrait of Israel, like his comedy, makes room for the unspectacular and the mundane. It embraces the awkward.

Though his red hair and last names betrays his Irish Catholic roots, O’Brien has an hour and a half to kill and decides to convert to Judaism, until a rabbi informs him that he needn’t bother, he can just have a Bar Mitzvah, which he does, kind of. (For some reason, the rabbi also decides to point out that a convert is considered reborn and thus may marry his own sister, a fact that I didn’t know and feel terribly uncomfortable about.)

Credit: Team Coco / YouTube
Credit: Team Coco / YouTube

But enough about religion: O’Brien is a man on a mission, and in order to achieve it, he first must face the foreboding presence of Lior Raz, star and writer of the hit Israeli TV show “Fauda.” With spark plugs in hand (to the delight of Raz) O’Brien demands the address of Israel’s hottest cultural export, actress Gal Gadot. “That’s a state secret,” Raz says, to which O’Brien responds by singing "Hava Nagila" rather awfully. Raz breaks, and soon O’Brien is at the door of Wonder Woman herself, though she gives him the shaft. “This is the entire reason I came to Israel,” he moans.

But of course, it’s not. He next arrives in the West Bank, where he swaps his Israeli crew for a Palestinian one because the Israelis can’t enter, a situation he likens to “leaving one divorced parent to stay with another.” After a brief, light-hearted stroll through a market in Bethlehem, where he successfully haggles for a hookah and does a bit of dabke, O’Brien arrives at the separation barrier. In voiceover, he offers Israel’s explanation for its necessity. In person, he encounters a group of Palestinian activists, who challenge the premise of his show.

“There’s no way my 40-minute program will satisfy what you want me to do,” he tells them, but he also promises to share their perspective (their full interaction can be found on the show’s website). It’s a mantra O’Brien constantly refers to over the course of the special: 40 minutes can’t capture all this complexity, and whatever I say, no one will be happy. He’s right, of course, but the point bears repeating.

O’Brien’s tour of the country next includes a stop at the Aida refugee camp, where he speaks to a young woman denied a visa to continue her studies in the United States, and boys who say they are envious of Americans. At the Golan Heights, overlooking Syria, he talks to two Israeli soldiers about that country’s civil war as fire exchange is heard in the background.

Credit: Team Coco / YouTube
Credit: Team Coco / YouTube
Credit: Team Coco / YouTube

“I’ve never heard an actual war before,” O’Brien says. “That’s pretty sobering.” For all his attempts at humor, O’Brien has no jokes here. Next, he visits an Israeli hospital that treats Syrian refugees, medically and psychologically, and meets with several refugees. “I think you’re doing God’s work here,” he tells a doctor. Then he looks at the doctor’s shoes. “I just question these medical Crocs. Other than the Crocs, I think you should get the Peace Prize.”

The Israel special was followed by O’Brien’s regularly-scheduled late-night show, during which he showed clips that didn’t make the final cut, including a visit to Waze headquarters, a workout session with female soldiers and a chat with two United Nation soldiers. He also debriefed the experience.

“People think there are two sides to an issue,” he said. “That’s not the case in Israel. There are 45 sides.” To O’Brien’s credit, he hit a nice balance between acknowledging Israel’s complexities and allowing the country to show its fun side, too. “I like to go to countries, meet people, make friends, try to make people laugh,” he said. “I think we made a lot of good comedy.”

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