NEW YORK—In a highly anticipated episode of the popular talk show U.N. Tonight! With Ban Ki-Moon, Latvian representative to the United Nations and frequent guest Normans Penke delighted the late-night program’s studio audience Tuesday with a humorous human development index anecdote.
The Emmy Award–winning variety and interview show, which airs in all 193 U.N. member states and is viewed by 400 million households each night, opened with host Ban’s signature monologue, during which the secretary-general poked fun at Greek austerity measures, U.S.-Israeli relations, and the ongoing Syrian conflict, quipping that “it’s almost as if [President Bashar] al-Assad’s getting away with murder over there.”
After being introduced in the six official languages of the U.N., Ambassador Penke, the night’s first guest, walked on stage to a jazz-pop rendition of the Latvian national anthem played by house band Kofi Annan and the Late Night Envoys.
“So there I was talking to this Belgian diplomat about our infant mortality rates, and then I realize I’m standing right next to the El Salvadorian representative, whose country’s human development score is still in the .670s,” said Penke, seated on a couch between Ban’s desk and announcer-sidekick Boutros Boutros-Ghali. “Now, I’m trying to change the subject to something else—anything else—but all I can think of are standard of living and education indices, both of which El Salvador ranks poorly in. It was so embarrassing.”
“I suppose the U.N.’s still at work on getting El Salvador’s life expectancy up, just like it did with Yugoslavia, right Boutros? Oh, wait…” added Penke, delighting the audience as the camera cut to former secretary-general Boutros-Ghali tugging comically at his shirt collar and feigning discomfort.
Ban then added to the ribbing by telling Penke that he “probably shouldn’t mention getting things up around [band leader] Kofi,” causing the studio to erupt in laughter.
Taped in Studio 4B of the international organization’s New York headquarters, U.N. Tonight! has long attracted the biggest names in geopolitics and famine relief. Along with Penke, Tuesday’s show featured French security council representative Gérard Araud, Afghan warlord Matiullah Khan, Modern Family actress Julie Bowen, and musical guest Raúl Castro.
“Some guests just want to come in, plug their upcoming address on gender equality in the Middle East, and get out, but Normans is always great,” said the program’s segment producer, Alison Hadwell, noting that the Baltic emissary can always be relied on to bring amusing stories, ensure the audience stays engaged, and keep mentions of unsanctioned nuclear weapons programs to a minimum. “I wish I could say the same about everyone. Last week we had the Norwegian prime minister here with his trained birds, and he completely lost control of them. We had parrots and ospreys flying all over our studio.”
“Luckily for us, Ban’s a pro,” Hadwell added. “He always manages to turn the awkward and unscripted situations into some of the show’s most memorable moments.”
Adapted from the popular radio program The League Of Nations’ Half-Hour Jamboree, which ran until 1946, U.N. Tonight! has attracted a sizable following with its popular General Assembly address parodies and recurring segments, including “Fake World Peace Agreements,” “Stump The Translator,” and “Who Ate My Ration?”—the last a skit in which Ban and Boutros-Ghali play Congolese refugees trying to figure out who consumed their relief supplies.
Among the show’s most popular recent additions is “Bolton Hits The Streets,” a remote segment in which former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton travels across the globe and offers his acerbic take on literacy rates, agricultural development, and various cultural celebrations, typically signing off with his catchphrase “What’s this world coming to?”
While several U.N. Tonight! staff members described Ban as “distant” and “unapproachable” off camera, noting that he rarely attends rehearsals and since 2006 has been engaged in a highly public feud with comedian Kathy Griffin, they all agreed that once the 68-year-old South Korean politician takes the stage, he is an extremely talented performer who “lives to make people laugh.”
“It’s hard work putting on a new show every night, but luckily Ban’s array of ambassador impressions and his improv background gives us a lot to work with,” said head writer Mike Greene, who previously wrote for the daytime talk show Angela, hosted by German chancellor Angela Merkel. “Ban gives it his all when he’s in front of the audience, and at the end of the day, he puts on a great show and brings in solid ratings, especially with the 35-to-60-year-old refugee demographic.”
“Though unfortunately we’re still trailing The Night Watch With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” Greene added. “Those guys always kill us.”