February 16, 2004 09:54 AM

Conan O’Brien’s “Late Night” trip to Toronto was supposed to help boost the city’s image after last year’s devastating SARS outbreak. Instead, it has unleashed a firestorm of protest following a skit that has been labeled “vile” and “racist.”

The criticism came after O’Brien’s taping in Toronto on Thursday, when one taped segment featured Triumph the Insult Comic Dog at a carnival in Quebec City. Triumph, a puppet created by comic and writer Robert Smigel that often appears on Conan’s show, let loose on unsuspecting passersby with a barrage of insults, The New York Times reports.

Many of the barbs included jokes about the nationality of Quebec City’s citizens, with insults suggesting that its French-speaking populace learn English. The city, with its mixed French and Canadian population and separatist government, is often a thorny issue in Canadian politics.

“We can all make jokes about each other but you don’t start telling people in Quebec they have to speak another language,” said Parliament member Stephen Harper. An editorial in the Toronto Star said the skit was racist. “Goodbye, Conan,” it read. “Don’t come back soon.”

The issue was made even more sensitive following statements a few weeks earlier by Canadian national sportscaster Don Cherry who made disparaging on-air comments about French-Canadian hockey players.

O’Brien spent several days in Toronto, hosting shows that featured such Canadian-born performers as Jim Carrey and Mike Myers. Costs for moving the show north were defrayed by governments in Ottawa and the province of Ontario, which put up $760,000 — $1 million Canadian — to help pay for the move, reports Reuters.

Many legislators tried to distance themselves from O’Brien’s show, while others sought the return of the Canadian subsidy used to sponsor the NBC program.

CHUM television, which broadcast the show in Canada, offered a statement of apology, but O’Brien downplayed the criticism during his final taping: “For those of you who don’t know me,” he told the audience, “I’m the guy who was hired to make Don Cherry look good.”

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