Conan O'Brien in Cuba: Bad Salsa, Worse Spanish, and Welcome Comedy

A redhead in Havana.
A redhead in Havana.
Courtesy of TBS

Miamians have found it all but impossible to separate the comedy from the politics in Conan O'Brien's historic late-night special filmed in Cuba. Either you thought the visit -- the first by an American TV host since Jack Paar flew down to interview Castro in 1959 -- was an embargo-smashing triumph or a slap in the face to generations of exiles and dissidents.

But as the special aired last night, it became increasingly obvious what should have been clear from the get-go: Conan's humor isn't political; it's personal. Specifically, it's about uniting the world over the shared desire to laugh at a goofy, gawky redheaded giant. That's something we should all be able to get behind.

See also: Conan O'Brien Films Episode of Conan in Cuba

Conan himself explained his approach in an NPR interview: "I like to make fun of myself a lot, especially in remote segments. I like the joke to be on me. I wanted it to be really funny and have belly laughs in it, but I also wanted it to be sweet."

The result was 80 minutes of the types of gags Conan has made a living pulling in the States but transplanted to the unfamiliar territory of Havana. He made Cuban women across the capital deeply and hilariously uncomfortable with his absurd come-ons and bravado; he botched attempts at rolling cigars, learning salsa, and speaking Spanish; and he failed to convince some kids on the Malecón that he could possibly be a TV star back in America.

All in all, it worked. Conan's focus was on the molecular level of life in Havana, on the absurdities that unite cultures by laughing at them. And -- in Miami of all places -- the lack of politics in the show was welcome.

Will Conan's trip thaw relations or lead to a Cuban Spring of democratic reform? Of course not. But uniting long-separated cultures through the joy of pointing and laughing at a doofus like Conan O'Brien isn't a bad place to start mending fences.

If you missed the show, here are some highlights:

Conan's Disturbing Rumba

If you guessed that a six-foot-four, extremely Anglo comedian bumping and grinding with professional salsa dancers in Havana might make for an awkward scene, es verdad. Havana is still ruing the day the instructor taught Conan the pelvic thrust.

Cigar Rolling Isn't as Easy as It Looks

New Times recently devoted two issues to exploring what thawed relations with Cuba could mean for the cigar industry on the island and in Miami. Some believe Cuba will muscle in to dominate the market, while others say quality has fallen so low on the island that it will never compete.

We can all agree, however, that Conan's hand-rolled Corona isn't likely to win any international competitions.


How Exactly Did Rob Schneider Make It to Cuba?

One unanswered question from the show came during Conan's visit to a Paladar, a family-run restaurant exempted from state control. The walls inside were plastered with American celebs who've visited over the years, raising the question: Who exactly let all these dudes go to Cuba? Jack Nicholson on a cultural exchange we can buy, but did we really let Rob Schneider travel to Havana as an example of American culture? Dear Lord.

The segment also featured a rare political aside. After the restaurant's host showed Conan his side-by-side statues of Jesus and Marx, O'Brien to muttered that the pair might not exactly see eye-to-eye in real life.

Cuban Idioms Are Weird

Conan's Spanish lessons are a highlight of the special -- particularly when he tries to convince the class that he's Ryan Gosling, America's biggest movie star. But his crash course in Cuban slang reveals some truly bizarre local idioms, from a suitcase-related put-down to a tongue twister about sad tigers eating mugs of wheat.

Boxed Rum Is Big in Havana

It's a genius idea, honestly: all the deliciousness of a strong rum-and-Coke with all the convenience of a juice box.

Catch the full episode at Team Coco's website.

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