When news surfaced that President Donald Trump had reportedly described Haiti as a “shithole” country in a meeting on immigration with lawmakers this month, comedian Conan O’Brien knew he had to catch the next flight out.
After all, he is the TBS late-night talk show host who has perfected the art of playing the goofy American abroad.
Now back from his first trip to Haiti, where he tried to make Haitians laugh and gave them a chance to fire back at Trump, O’Brien has something to say to the president.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“I want him to see these are people whose feelings get hurt if he carelessly says something ignorant,” O’Brien said in a telephone interview with the Miami Herald from Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, Calif.
But does he think the president, who appeared as a guest on O’Brien’s show during the 1990s, will watch the hour-long “Conan Without Borders” special on Haiti at 10 p.m. Saturday on TBS?
“No, I don’t,” O’Brien said. “But if he did watch it or were forced to watch it, I would hope that he just sees that these are people with a lot of dignity.
“They have problems, problems that he’s never had to face, I’ve never had to face,” he added. “But they are living their lives with a lot of joy and dignity, and they could be easily helped and they could be good friends of the United States and they have been.”
Trump, who arrived in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday for the World Economic Forum, has denied referring to Haiti, as well as El Salvador and some African nations, as “shithole countries” in the meeting with a group of bipartisan lawmakers. Weeks earlier, the White House also vehemently denied a report in the New York Times that during a June tirade on immigration, Trump said 15,000 U.S.-bound Haitians with visas “all have AIDS.”
The latest report of a disparaging remark about Haiti set off an uproar among politicians, celebrities and Haitians, some of whom responded to Trump by posting beautiful images of the Caribbean nation on social media with the hashtag #shithole.
One Haitian advertising creative director, Fabien Dodard, even launched a GoFundMe campaign to buy ads on 50 taxi cabs in Washington, D.C., and a double-decker bus in New York. Some of the ads rolled out Thursday, displaying a photo of a beach in Port Salut, Haiti, and the words, “Our “SH**HOLE BEACHES” go on for days.”
“The goal is to change the perception around Haiti in the minds of people at large,” said Dodard, 32, who lives in Port-au-Prince and sees similarities between his tongue-and-cheek campaign and O’Brien’s visit. “I’ve seen a lot of the things Conan O’Brien filmed, and the tours he made. I think it’s going to be very positive and he’s doing the same thing I am trying to do in terms of changing the perception.”
O’Brien, who got support from celebrities including Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, Chef José Andrés and CNN’s Anderson Cooper before flying to Haiti, is still editing the footage from his four-day visit. But video clips and social media images show Haitians roasting Trump in Creole and O’Brien delving into Haitian life.
In one comical attempt, he tried and failed to create a new authentic Haitian dish — poisson gros sel (coarse salt fish) — at Chef Andrés World Central Kitchen culinary school as Haitian chefs ridiculed him. And when his tap-tap — one of the colorful buses and trucks that are the preferred mode of transportation for the country’s poor — overheated in Port-au-Prince’s bottleneck traffic, O’Brien jumped out and started pushing.
And yes, there was a moment when the trip got a little tense. At Place Boyer in Petionville in the hills of Port-au-Prince, an angry crowd gathered and someone accused him of being another American journalist parachuting in to report negatively on “our country and never showing our beautiful beaches.” After reminding the crowd that he is a comedian, not a journalist, O’Brien took the comment to heart and headed north to Wahoo Bay Beach on the Côte-des-Arcadins, a picturesque area widely known as the Haitian Riviera.
One of his more impressive experiences, O’Brien said, came during his visit to a school — Ecole NouvelleZorange — on the outskirts of the capital. Born out of Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, the school began as a cluster of tents and was founded by Haitian businesswoman Maryse Penette-Kedar and photographer Daniel Kedar as a way to offer free top-tier education to underprivileged children.
The students, who at one point attempted to decorate O’Brien’s red hair with long white ribbons, had no notice of the surprise visit, and “they pretty much thought I was a clown,” he said.
“There were a few of the girls who I talked to who were very opinionated and one of them was saying, ‘Americans come here to take from us and they don’t give back,’ and I was assuring her … I am not here to do that,” O’Brien said.
Then one of the kids asked about President Trump, but another student didn’t give O’Brien a chance to answer.
“This very strong girl with so much personality and so much intelligence … said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about him. Don’t be distracted by that guy,’ ” O’Brien said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, you can come and teach us a lesson.’ ”
O’Brien, who wants to return to the country with his 14-year-old daughter, said he isn’t interested in demonizing anyone who supports Trump. He understands that some Americans are weary of feeling as though they have to take on the world’s problems.
“But I do think that when you go and see the individual people and talk to them and meet them, it humanizes the issues,” he said. “There’s a lot of decent people who I think if they went to Haiti and saw what was happening there, would be willing to help.”
And unlike some of the other places he’s visited around the world where there are deep divisions and conflicts, he feels strongly that Haiti’s problems are solvable.
“There is lots of footage where people see Haiti at its worst, like the 2010 earthquake, collapsed buildings and extreme poverty,” said O’Brien, who was aided by a team led by Nathalie Philippe, a Haitian entrepreneur. “And certainly there are real issues in Haiti, real poverty in Haiti, but what’s incredible is how you drive around and quickly you are swept up in the natural beauty … and how much you are caught up by the people.
“The people have a great sense of humor and they are very lively. They are great artists, great music,” he added. “And you are caught up in all of this positive stuff that doesn’t get as much attention.”
One sure sign that O’Brien’s visit won’t be forgotten anytime soon in Haiti: Haitian artist, Anthony Louis-Jeune, who works under the name Thony Loui, painted the comedian’s face on the back of a tap-tap — and no, it’s not the one that broke down.
O’Brien was pleased with the news. “It’s time that Conan was represented in the Caribbean,” he said.