In theory, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop should have been a simple work of hero worship presenting the recently fired talk show host as a misunderstood comedy genius who was unfairly dealt a bad hand by evil ivory-tower dwelling NBC executives. Admirably, director Rodman Flender went for something a little more complex. Coco fans needn’t worry about seeing their hero torn to shreds in a character assassination piece, but at the same time the portrait of Conan that Flender presents is far more complicated than expected. Conan comes off as a major talent, but also an entertainer with a fragile ego. There’s a sense that after almost two decades of hosting a late night talk show, O’Brien has a compulsive and almost unhealthy desire to entertain. He seems comfortable only in front of an audience and is capable of communicating almost exclusively through jokes (often of a viciously critical variety). It’s a character trait perfectly suited to hosting a talk show, but also one that makes him seem out of place in nearly every other environment. Think of this as the Don’t Look Back of comedy. My full review after the jump.
The film follows Conan on his amusingly and accurately titled “Legally Prohibited From Appearing On Television Tour,” which he embarked on during his involuntary 6-month TV hiatus following the Tonight Show debacle. “I am angry,” O’Brien admits early on. “I’m trying not to be, but sometimes I’m so mad I can’t even breathe.” The guy is clearly bitter about his current situation and justifiably so. Early writing meetings to prepare his live show sees that anger manifest itself in harsh humor directed towards his wife, staff, and even his future network home TBS, with whom he was negotiating at the time. The humor isn’t incredibly cruel, but you can tell that O’Brien communicates almost exclusively through comedy and can use it as a weapon when necessary. He pretends to fire his assistant for ordering him the wrong fish and frequently physically and verbally abuses his writing staff. It’s all in the same jovial, irreverent, and self-depreciating tone that defines Conan’s late night persona, but seeing him occasionally use his talent maliciously can be unsettling. Conan never comes across as a bad person, but a few cracks appear in his armor in a way that is unexpected and deeply compelling.
As the tour kicks off, Conan’s mood lightens even if stress and ego still rear their ugly heads. The second he’s off stage Conan appears drained and depressed as if performing in front of an audience offers the high he lives for and the rest of his life is a let down. That’s not an uncommon trait in performers, but it’s rare to see it portrayed as openly and honestly as Flender was able to capture here. As the tour continues, Conan’s exhaustion becomes palpable. He smiles while greeting fans, signing autographs, and making personal appearances, but the strain it puts on his already fragile mental state can be intense. He complains about having too much to do, yet seems depressed whenever he has a moment to himself. It says a lot about Conan that during the only 6-months he had off in a 17 year talk show career, he had to launch a punishingly strenuous 32 city live tour and hire a documentary crew to follow his every move. The guy didn’t even take the day off for his birthday. A 60 Minutes crew was there to film his party.
If the remarkable Larry Sanders Show taught us anything it’s that hosting a late night talk show demands a certain level of narcissism and neurosis. You couldn’t survive the job without those qualities and the daily affirmation of performing for a cheering live audience and millions of home viewers only accentuates them. That said, Conan isn’t as deeply fucked up as Larry Sanders (we’d need a fly-on-the-wall David Letterman documentary to get that experience). Despite his manic energy and neediness, he’s a pretty well adjusted guy. No ego could survive the life he lives without a little inflation and under the circumstances Conan seems to have come out alright. It’s impressive that the guy even allowed this documentary to be made and released. If you’re a card carrying member of Team Coco, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is required viewing. But even if you’re not, it’s still a pretty fascinating documentary. Even though I’m sure plenty of harsh footage hit the cutting room floor and the cameras weren’t allowed total access to the star subject like it appears, Rodman Flender and his crew dig farther beneath the showbiz sheen than anyone could have predicted. This is a damn compelling documentary and a balls-to-the-wall hilarious one as well. The latter quality was always a given though. Warts and all, Conan O’Brien has a genuine comedy talent that’s impossible to ignore. –Phil Brown