NEW YORK – Conan O'Brien may be a talk-show host in America, but he's a god in Finland.
On Friday, O'Brien will devote the whole of "Late Night" to recapping his recent trip to the Nordic country where he is surprisingly so popular. Thousands met him at the airport; he was mobbed wherever he went.
"The whole experience was surreal. It was a fevered dream," O'Brien told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
In Finland, his NBC show airs in prime time, though delayed three days. Seizing on his peculiar Nordic niche, O'Brien joked with his usual self-deprecating style: "(David) Hasselhoff is big in Germany, but I'm the king of Finland."
O'Brien's Finnish popularity escalated in the past year as he increasingly made humorous references to his remarkable resemblance to Finland's equally carrot-topped president, Tarja Halonen. His show even ran a series of mock-campaign ads with him supporting her. When she won re-election, her rival candidates wondered if O'Brien influenced the race.
So while "Late Night" was on hiatus for NBC's Olympic coverage, O'Brien and a camera crew hopped a plane to Helsinki, not knowing quite what to expect.
"We had no idea," he said. "We were thinking we were going to arrive at the airport and that no one's really going to be there."
Not only did crowds follow O'Brien, but the country's paparazzi trailed him while tabloids splashed stories about his visit on their covers.
"When you see a telephoto lens shot taken from some bushes by a paparazzi, what you're used to seeing is Brad Pitt making out with Angelina Jolie or Michael Jackson being rushed through a mall in a weird disguise," he explained.
"But the shots of me were of this very pale guy staring sadly at the Baltic Sea."
He also met with President Halonen. The palace meeting, complete with honor guard and majestic ceremony, was like a legitimate state visit, O'Brien said.
"It was treated with the same dignity and gravitas as Nelson Mandela meeting with Mother Teresa," he said. "My feeling was, `Is this really happening?"'
The talk-show host rationalizes his Finnish popularity, suggesting the show's "weird, abstract" comedy strikes a chord with European sensibilities.
So did Conan, like Col. Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now," think about remaining in the land where he's a virtual deity?
He acknowledged that he could get used to it, and that going directly to a family vacation in the Caribbean (where "Late Night" wasn't airing) was a rough transition from life as a Beatle in Finland.
"I was saying to my wife, `I'm like a diver that came up too fast,"' he said.
But O'Brien -- bends or not -- is happy to be back.
"It was too much over there. I got enough of that to last a lifetime."