From herding sheep while wearing traditional clothing to experiencing modern life in the bustling Armenian capital, Yerevan, well-known U.S. television host and comedian Conan O’Brien says he's dived into Armenian culture headfirst while on a trip inspired by his ethnic Armenian assistant.
The 52-year-old TV personality is regarded as the longest-working of all current late-night talk show hosts in the United States, at 22 years.
A writer and producer for The Simpsons for two seasons, O’Brien later took over David Letterman’s position as host of Late Night in 1993. Since 2010, he has hosted Conan, another talk show, on the cable channel TBS.
O'Brien has been in Armenia since last week filming an episode of his show that will air in November.
O'Brien, who also shot an episode in Cuba a few months ago, says it was his longtime assistant who gave him the idea of visiting Armenia.
“This all happened because I have an assistant who I’ve worked with for five years, Sona Movsesian, and she is always very active on behalf of the Armenian community of Los Angeles in the United States, and she is always talking about Yerevan,” O’Brien said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
“A few years ago, she asked me to wear a Yerevan T-shirt and she took a picture of me wearing this Yerevan T-shirt, and she put it on Facebook...and a lot of Armenians saw it and were very excited. And I finally said to Sona: ‘Why don’t I take you to Armenia?’ because she has never been there before. And so that was the story behind the trip.”
O’Brien said they’ve had a lot of adventures around Yerevan and across Armenia during their four or five days of filming, getting immersed in local culture.
“I went to a lot of different places and had a lot of really fun interactions. We tried to explore as much of Yerevan and Armenia as we could in the time that we’ve been here. ... So I think people will be surprised at how much we actually accomplished while we were here. They’ll see that we really did dive into the culture headfirst.”
The American comedian said he has noticed a few things that seemed funny to him, such as the presence of the fast-food chain KFC.
“When you get to a place like Armenia, you’re so excited to be on the other side of the world, away from all the Western influences, all the stuff that we think may be not the best thing for the world, and then you see a KFC and you think: ‘Oh my God. Why? Why did they let KFC here?”
O’Brien says watching Armenian men walk with their arms interlocked was also very unusual.
“You don’t see that in the United States, and so when you first see it here, you think: Why are they doing that? But then, I think, that’s a great idea. So, I started walking with one of my producers. We started linking arms and I actually thought: ‘This is fantastic.’ We should adopt this in the West. It’s time for us to catch up.”
O'Brien said that while he knew that the country marked the 100th anniversary of what it calls the Armenian genocide this year, it wasn’t the reason he came at this time.
“But it certainly adds a lot of importance to the visit,” he said.
“I'm not an expert on world affairs. I know that it’s very complicated because of Turkey’s relationship with the United States and there's a whole geopolitical set of questions that are beyond me. But I take it from a very human, simple level, which is, I wanted to bring Sona here, and I wanted to experience her culture with her and meet her people with her," O'Brien said. "And you cannot come here and not go and visit the genocide memorial. It is an integral part of this country’s history and Sona’s history so ... It was very moving to go. ... I just thought, 'I don’t know what the politics are,' but I’m not gonna worry about that."
The World War I-era mass slaughter and deportation of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks is considered by many historians and several nations as genocide. Turkey objects, saying that Armenians died in much smaller numbers and because of civil strife rather than a planned Ottoman government effort to annihilate the Christian minority.