Conan O'Brien Must Go and Make Disciples

Joel Mayward

In the opening narration to a new travel show on (HBO) Max, we hear German filmmaker Werner Herzog dramatically introduce the host as “the defiler.” This host is, apparently, a person who is “vile, base, and depraved.” In his iconic grandiloquent voice, Herzog declares: “This is madness. This is lunacy. This is chaos. This is Conan O’Brien Must Go.” And “go” O’Brien does (after all, he can’t stop), traveling to four different countries—Norway, Argentina, Thailand, and Ireland—on a quest to surprise various fans who called in as guests on his weekly podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. The premise is that O’Brien shows up at their door unannounced and attempts to make himself at home in their culture.

As is to be expected from O’Brien, hilarity ensues. Here is a man who recently went viral for his appearance on Hot Ones, the interview show where celebrity guests answer questions from host Sean Evans while eating increasingly spicy hot wings. O’Brien went all in, dousing wings with the hottest of sauces and tucking into them like a rabid beast. By the show’s conclusion, O’Brien was sweating, drooling, and weeping, his red-flushed face smeared with hot sauce as he howled his somehow-still-coherent responses to Evans’ questions. He stared wild-eyed into the camera as he screamed out a plug for his new travel show while milk and saliva flowed freely from his mouth. And it doesn’t stop with Hot Ones: in Conan O’Brien Must Go, when O’Brien tries some notoriously spicy street food in Thailand, we bear witness to the same sweat-covered wackiness. Vile, base, and depraved indeed.

What theological wisdom could we ever possibly discern from something so puerile and ridiculous? Might I suggest that beneath the madness of Conan O’Brien Must Go, there are parallels to be seen between O’Brien’s stupid-smart humor and the Christian practice of evangelism?

Might I suggest that beneath the madness of Conan O’Brien Must Go, there are parallels to be seen between O’Brien’s stupid-smart humor​ and the Christian practice of evangelism?

In missiologist Andrew Walls’ classic essay, “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture,” Walls describes two seemingly-opposing principles which can be discerned throughout church history. The first principle, what he calls the “indigenizing” principle is essentially this: “God accepts us as we are, on the ground of Christ’s work alone, not on the ground of what we have become or are trying to become. But, if He accepts us ‘as we are’ that implies He does not take us as isolated, self-governing units, because we are not. We are conditioned by a particular time and place, by our family and group and society, by ‘culture’ in fact.” In other words, the gospel can find its home in any and every cultural context, no matter how diverse. As the Word of God became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood, Jesus can do so in any neighborhood and dwell there. In this way, the gospel is “indigenous” to each time and place where it takes root.

If this is true, then it has huge implications for how we approach evangelism and missions. The Christian gospel must be translated into a culture, and it will thus sound, look, and feel distinct, depending on that culture. Walls puts it this way: “No group of Christians has therefore any right to impose in the name of Christ upon another group of Christians a set of assumptions about life determined by their own culture.... All churches are culture churches—including our own.” I think O’Brien seems to implicitly understand this idea: comedy (O’Brien’s gospel) is also culturally conditioned and particular. What is funny in Ireland appears to be different from what is funny in Thailand. So, while remaining authentically himself, O’Brien adapts his comedy to the culture. For instance, in Norway, O’Brien observes that people like to have their personal space, that folks generally seem a bit more reserved; so he makes a number of jokes out of this cultural reality, either by “invading” their personal space or responding to their stoic matter-of-fact responses to his antics. This is very different from Argentina, where folks greet one another with a kiss on the cheek and passionately dance the tango; O’Brien starts kissing strangers in an Argentine café and awkwardly fumbles through his tango session. There’s a continuity in O’Brien’s humor: he observes and affirms the beauty and goodness of each cultural context he visits, even as these cultural realities are also fodder for a good comedic bit. Just as Walls affirms Christ’s active presence in every culture, so O’Brian affirms that there is comedy in every culture.

Walls says there is a second principle, the “pilgrim” principle: “Along with the indigenizing principle which makes faith a place to feel at home, the Christian inherits the pilgrim principle, which whispers that the Christian has no abiding city and warns that to be faithful to Christ will put them out of step with society.” That is, even as the gospel takes its roots in distinct cultures, there is a universalizing dimension which transcends every culture and invites Christians into citizenship in a new reality: the kingdom of heaven. And to practice this new reality means Christians have a dual citizenship—they can inhabit any culture due to Christ’s incarnate presence, yet they will also be out of place in every culture due to their allegiance to Christ.

In a way, I think O’Brien understands this principle too: as he attempts to integrate himself within these various cultures, he also recognizes that he’s a visitor and out of place. Even when he visits Ireland, his “home” and place of origin, it’s clear that he’s still a bit of a misfit. O’Brien sadly discovers that being a red-haired “ginger” in Ireland leads to being ridiculed as much as it does in the rest of the world. Beyond prejudice against redheads, “comedy” also seems to be a universalizing factor: in every culture, people love to laugh. Everywhere O’Brien visits, the people he encounters tell jokes, share embarrassing stories, make witty comebacks, and play along with O’Brien’s silliness. More often than not, O’Brien attempts to bring joy wherever he goes, often at the expense of his own comforts and dignity. So, while I wouldn’t recommend that Conan O’Brien Must Go serve as a template for Christian missions, there are perhaps some fundamental gospel truths that O’Brien has inadvertently embodied. Good comedy, like the good news, is both universal and particular: it transcends national and cultural boundaries even as it also affirms the goodness of unique communities and contexts. And if Christian disciples were known to be bringers of joy wherever we go, that’d be a gospel worth sharing.


At Think Christian, we encourage careful cultural discernment. We recognize and respect that many Christians choose not to engage with pop culture that contains particular content, such as abuse, sex, violence, alcohol or drug use, or that employs the use of coarse language. To that end, we suggest visiting Common Sense Media for detailed information regarding the content of the particular piece of pop culture discussed in this article.

Topics: TV