Conan O’Brien doesn’t like video games. We know this because he declares it, with a certain edge of perverse pride, at the start of nearly every installment of his long-running Conan segment Clueless Gamer. Which might raise the question of why the recurring bit, in which O’Brien, producer Aaron Bleyaert, and a rotating band of celebrity guests play haplessly through the hottest video games of the day, has recurred more than 40 times over the course of the soon-to-conclude TBS series. The answer is easy to land on for anyone who’s spent much time with Conan, though: Few people make having a bad time look more fun than modern-era Conan O’Brien.
Take it, maybe, as an evolution of the straight-man persona that saw O’Brien spend years feeding set-up lines to a menagerie of masturbating bears, angry little sisters, and racist ghosts on Late Night, a comic exasperation that only got more exasperated during the swift rise and fall (and final, Pyrrhic rise) of his run on NBC’s Tonight Show. Somewhere along the line, O’Brien got a lot more comfortable channeling his apparently limitless reserves of annoyance into comedy, whether in the form of the many pieces built around his irritations/interactions with employee (and ostensible friend) Jordan Schlansky, or in his confrontations with the medium of video gaming as a whole.
Every segment of Clueless Gamer starts off roughly the same way: O’Brien introduces the game—usually culled from brand new titles proffered up by publishers operating on a probable “no such thing as bad publicity” mindset—with apparent enthusiasm, an illusion that persists until roughly the first time Bleyaert opens his mouth to begin talking about backstory or character creation or some other unfortunate distraction. O’Brien’s bored, mildly hateful looks toward camera begin early and often, followed by a little light verbal sniping, typically abetted by the celebrity guest. (Bill Hader, for instance, fell into the role of gleeful co-bully with abandon in the installment set around 2018 GOTY God Of War.)
From there, we soon get O’Brien at his most joyfully withering, firing his TV-honed wit at anything and everything in range, from the writing, to the ludicrous violence on display, to—in what’s probably the funniest Clueless Gamer moment ever—his deep amusement at Kumail Nanjiani’s extremely Kumail Nanjiani-sounding voice in 2017’s Middle-earth: Shadow Of War. (“What was that?! O’Brien yells, as happy as audiences have ever seen him. “Did you do that over the phone?!”) If O’Brien’s playing up his annoyance or frustrations with whatever poor digital avatar has been thrust into his hands at the moment, he’s a genius for making it clear that both his ire, and his amusement, are coming from a genuine place.
The fascinating thing about Clueless Gamer, which started with a one-off NFL/Mortal Kombat segment way back in 2013 and quickly became an arrow in the TBS show’s quiver, is that Conan O’Brien is actually a pretty good video game reviewer, when he feels like it. Sure, O’Brien (or, at least, the character he’s playing for these bits) has the attention span of a lemming when he’s got a controller in his hand, and a near-pathological need to bed any attractive female character that shows up on the screen. (God bless whoever set Conan up for success by putting its host into proximity with The Witcher 3's infamous “tub Geralt” and “stuffed unicorn” scenes.) But his profound disinterest in having his time wasted means that O’Brien has a laser focus on when games are engaging in padding or bad editing, to the point that the final installment of the segment—in which he and J.B. Smoove roast seven kinds of shit out of THQ Nordic’s Biomutant for its deeply irritating narrator and repetitive gameplay—serves as a genuinely trenchant analysis of the game’s flaws. At the same time, those moments when O’Brien gets legitimately swept up in the excitement, often after button-mashing his way through a fighting game victory over, say, poor Ron Funches, are genuinely infectious bursts of joy.
The core appeal of the bit is a little simpler, though: O’Brien is a funny man who usually only gets funnier when he’s got a worthy target in his sights. Sometimes that target is often just Bleyaert—who accepts every insult about his fashion sense, his social life, and his rambling monologues with awkward good cheer—but most especially it’s gaming itself. Video games are a however-many-billion-dollars-per-year industry these days, but they’re also still relentlessly goofy, full of assumptions and requirements that are frankly ludicrous to anyone who’s coming to them without a childhood filled with the appropriate indoctrination to grease the wheels. (It’s not for nothing that O’Brien was one of the first to mock Call Of Duty’s famously dumb “Press ___ To Pay Respects” prompt.) That’s to say nothing of O’Brien’s appeal as a stand-in for god knows how many people who’ve had a controller thrust into their hands by a well-meaning friend or partner over the years, expecting them, like Bleyaert, to maneuver through a Grand Theft Auto or its ilk without a moment’s training or hesitation. That’s the true draw of Clueless Gamer, maybe: Conan O’Brien might suck at playing video games, but he wrecks shop when it comes to mocking their nigh-infinite flaws.