"The most satisfying part of the trip [was] just getting people to laugh," says O'Brien

By Jeff Nelson
Updated February 27, 2015 06:55 PM
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Credit: Team Coco/AP

Diplomatic relations are still being restored with Cuba – and U.S.’s 50-plus-year economic embargo is still intact – but that didn’t stop late-night star Conan O’Brien from heading to the island.

The Conan host and a 10-person crew recently traveled to the communist country’s capital city of Havana after receiving an invite from the Cuban Ministry of Culture.

While they were there to tape a special episode of his TBS show, the funnyman says the visit was for more than the laughs, though.

“Our thing was: Let’s approach this from the most fundamental level, which is, I’m going, I’m trying to do my schtick over there with these people, seeing if I can connect in some way and make some friends,” O’Brien, 51, told reporters at a lunch in New York Wednesday.

While the Havana episode will have the humor he’s known for, O’Brien admits it’ll have the feel of a documentary, too. He explores the city and immerses himself in its rich culture, from learning about cigar-making to playing with local musicians.

O’Brien notes one of his favorite segments of the special was his failed attempt at singing Spanish with a serious Cuban band.

“[A] guy’s teaching me how to play and sing the Cuban music, and I m not quite getting it, and then I burst through, and I start using eighth-grade Spanish to improvise this song, and all the guys in the band are really laughing,” the Conan star said. “I’m really saying things like, ‘The cat is in the sky’ and ‘The dog has no milk.’ But I’m singing full-out, with great passion, and the band is cracking up.”

And though their intent to go was not diplomatic or to make a political statement, if it helps with relations on a basic level, it’s fine by him.

“That was one of the most satisfying parts of this project: Just getting people to laugh who may not even speak much English,” said O’Brien. “[They] don’t know much about our culture, but they understand this [foreign] guy not being able to make a cigar, not being able to play the music right.

“But they laughed at my attempt, which was fun.”

O’Brien’s special episode of Conan from Havana will air Wednesday, March 4 at 11 PM EST on TBS