One of the weirder places where American and Finnish pop cultures have met – and there aren’t really that many to begin with – is a TV studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City. It was here, the home of the late great “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”, that a beautiful friendship began in 2006.
In a gag typically quirky for the show, Conan decided to insult every country on earth, alphabetically, a few nations at a time, all for the purpose of eliciting hate mail from the more obscure corners of the world where his show was broadcast. (This is not unlike what some bloggers do.)
Finnish fans didn’t wait for their insult. They jumped the gun by flooding Conan with love/hate mail even before Finland’s turn came. Now, queue jumping isn’t in the Finnish character. Far from it. Neither is anything that smacks of calling too much attention to yourself, so I can only take this outpouring of mail as a sign of how genuinely popular the redheaded Irish-American comedian is among Finns.
While I would personally chalk this popularity up to Finns’ own quirky sense of humor, Conan quickly came up with a different interpretation after he realized the uncanny (some might call it “cosmic”) resemblance he bears to Finland’s president, Tarja Halonen.
The freakish similarity between the two has provided plenty of fodder for Conan’s writers, with Conan convincing himself that his resemblance to Halonen had made him a “Golden God” in the eyes of the Finnish people. He even meddled in Finnish presidential politics to ensure Halonen’s reelection by airing on her behalf some amazingly tough-minded campaign ads. No, make that simple-minded. Anyway, it was all in good fun. (I wasn't able to upload the ads, but you can view some of them by searching "Conan supports Tarja Halonen" on YouTube.)
For a victory lap following the epic success of his campaign, Conan actually visited the land of his people to bask in the love, or just very strong enthusiasm, of adoring fans and to meet personally with a grateful, or at least bemused, Halonen. She’s a good sport, it seems.
Alas, Finland hasn’t seen much of Conan since he was unceremoniously ousted from the “The Tonight Show” last year. His new show, “Conan” is not carried by any of the Finnish TV channels, and even worse, in this age of Internet, full episodes of the show cannot be streamed from Conan’s website due to some mysterious legalities. For Conan fans, this is a hugely unhappy situation, maybe even unjust. And Conan himself is obviously starting to feel the strain of separation from his most loyal fans on earth, or at least the most loyal fans who have a president who looks like him.
Last week, he finagled a way to break down – if for only one week – the legal barriers that deprived Finland of its Conan fix, allowing Finns to stream the show and enjoy a series of Finland-themed gags. I was only able to catch a couple of these sketches, the best of which was his whacky setup of the hit video game “Angry Birds”, where players use a slingshot to propel flightless birds against enemy pigs. On the show, Conan played a giant-sized version of this Finnish creation, with the twist of disguising the evil pigs with masks of Snooki and other “stars” from “Jersey Shore”, making their destruction even sweeter. Only a pop culture icon, and self-appointed God of the Finns, like Conan O’Brien could dream up a way to bring bits of Finland and America together like that.