During Saturday night’s Conan In Haiti special, Conan O’Brien encountered a crowd of Haitians who were uneasy with the presence of someone they perceived to be an American journalist after President Trump (allegedly?) called Haiti a shithole (or a shithouse, as some contend). In order to win over the group, O’Brien told them, “[the] reason I’ve come to Haiti is because I and a lot of Americans are angry at what President Trump said, so I wanted to come here and show positive, great beautiful things about Haiti.” But while Trump’s words were inextricably linked to O’Brien and his crew’s journey, and while his name certainly came up often when the late night host interacted with Haitian citizens, the special wasn’t really about Trump.
To get technical, Trump’s remarks aren’t necessarily what sparked O’Brien’s exploratory trip. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s stirring words in response to Trump and in favor of Haiti helped to inspire O’Brien to seek an understanding of the country beyond a crude label and glimpses of the worst parts of it on the news. That’s a big part of O’Brien’s Conan Without Borders specials: to listen and learn about places that, despite technology’s awesome reach, remain walled off from many of us. That, and to make people laugh while transcending language and cultural barriers, two things that, as O’Brien demonstrated in the Conan In Haiti special, go hand in hand.
To accomplish their mission before another round of Trump gaffes somehow made people forget about the “shithole” remark, the Conan team went into overdrive. Thankfully, they had a lot of help. Conan producer and writer Mike Sweeney tells Uproxx that a collection of journalists, celebrities, and prominent Haitians reached out to the show as soon as the special was announced. “Thanks to the outpouring of suggestions and assistance,” Sweeney says, “we were able to figure out where to visit in and around Port-au-Prince on only three days’ notice.”
Unfortunately, the tight schedule led to some limitations for the nimble production of just nine on-the-ground crew members (including O’Brien). “There are many beautiful sites in northern and southern Haiti we were dying to visit, but we couldn’t pull it off on such a tight schedule,” said Sweeney, who did note that they got to make one 90-minute trip to a beach.
Unsurprisingly, some on the right took issue with the special (sight-unseen) as well as O’Brien’s remarks and social media posts, saying they all fed into the idea that Haiti is a flawless and majestic locale. But portraying Haiti in that wholly positive light was never the goal, according to Sweeney.
“Our intent was always to try and present a balanced picture of Haiti, both the bad and the good, but primarily, through Conan’s one-on-one interactions, shine a light on the amazing strength, warmth, and wit of the Haitian people.”