by Justin Stewart
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Dir. Rodman Flender, U.S., Abramorama
The early buzz on Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, which follows the titular talk show host on his 2010 Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television tour, was that it revealed a meaner, bitterer Conan, overwhelmed and lashing out at close colleagues. He was mad because of some of the most highly publicized inside baseball in television history—his resignation after NBC’s decision to bump Conan’s Tonight Show beyond midnight, following a half-hour show hosted by Jay Leno, who’d been unsuccessfully plugged into a ten o’clock slot. Conan claimed he quit because a Tonight Show that began the next day was neither what he’d been promised several years ago, nor respectful of the show’s distinguished history. He left with a $45 million payout and the agreement implied in the tour title.
The Conan (millions of non-friends refer to him by his first name because it’s unique, and because of television’s illusion of intimacy) chronicled here by old Harvard buddy Rodman Flender is more aggrieved and caustic, but everything you see was vetted and approved by O’Brien, so the “dark side” glimpsed is qualified. He’s passively aggressive to his writers and he complains about constant glad-handing and posing for photos with his backup singers’ guests. Attempting to flee a crowd in a car’s backseat, he says towards the camera, “Can you close the fucking door?” But Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is ultimately sympathetic to his situation, and rightly so—by all evidence the network did screw him in favor of the loathsome Leno, and he channeled his bitter energy into a slapdash but ambitious tour that gave back to the fans.
With minimum commentary and a welcome lack of pop-doc, Final Cut Pro graphic decoration, Flender’s movie follows a funny man at a pivotal, soul-searching professional juncture. Without overreaching or imposing high drama where there is none, Flender observes and records, and the result is engrossing. And because Conan is so consistently hilarious, human, frazzled, and universally deprecating—so complex—the movie often feels like an accidental epic. Flender, who has mostly directed for television but whose resume also includes Leprechaun 2 and the Devon Sawa-Seth Green vehicle Idle Hands, has cited D. A. Pennebaker and the Maysles as inspiration, but the film is fashioned just as much by O’Brien’s dictatorial mania for putting on a good show, which also recalls David Byrne’s visionary white god phase from Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.
The NBC feud and O’Brien’s sense of betrayal are addressed in direct interviews. Those who think of a millionaire’s however-justified complaining as whining might roll their eyes, though it’ll be fascinating to anyone interested in backroom machinating. Before long the film becomes only about Conan and his staff emerging from “the rubble” and embarking on a tour that the host has since called the most fun and valuable experience of his career. The real antagonists aren’t NBC executives, but exhaustion and self-doubt, and the story is about a frustrated group of people battling a basically unfunny situation with humor and energy. They have support from a steady stream of cameoing notables (Jon Hamm, Jon Stewart, Jim Carrey, a cruelly dismissed Margaret Cho) and millions of fans. An early scene finds drama in a Twitter posting. Conan and his crew (including head writer Mike Sweeney, producer Jeff Ross, and assistant Sona Movsesian) announce that tour tickets are on sale, and within minutes almost every show sells out, at which point they all realize that they’d better start preparing the thing.
The live road show itself was in the old-fashioned mode of eclectic “total entertainment,” with music, dancing, guests, banter, audience interaction, and some filmed bits. Conan, a good guitarist, probably fulfilled some childhood dreams by rocking out to huge crowds, with backup singing and dancing by “The Cocettes.” Stewart and Stephen Colbert show up to enact a fake feud. Jack White, whom O’Brien seems obsessed with, does a duet with the host. Eddie Vedder delivers a surprisingly good “Baba O’Riley.” Because NBC intellectual property like the Masturbating Bear can’t be used, there are visits from tweaked characters like the Self-Pleasuring Panda.
More compelling is the offstage stuff. Despite his final cut, O'Brien's allowed for several bits of casual cruelty. A puffier than normal Andy Richter says that the tour was great fun but doing it forever would be like eating chocolate cake every day, and Conan retorts, “but you do eat chocolate cake every day.” When he pretends to fire the sensible, loyal (and quite young) Movsesian because the fish she ordered for him was covered in butter sauce, the fake act feels charged with an implied real threat and reminder of power. Sick of having to “perform” with meet-and-greets and photo-ops both before and after the show, O’Brien lets off steam by openly mocking some of the hangers-on when in the privacy of a dressing room with Movsesian and Richter (and Flender’s camera). This frequent shift into teasing meanness won’t surprise fans of Late Night with Conan O’Brien bits like If They Mated and the moving-lips interviews, which were amusing largely because they were so bitchy and impolite. A cutting sarcasm has always been the balancing corrective to Conan’s humble self-deprecation and the boyish anti-cynicism summarized in his Tonight Show farewell address.
I suppose it’s worth noting that I’m a Conan O’Brien fan who spent many a drowsy day in high school thanks to staying up to watch Late Night. But there’s universal interest in this documentary’s portrait of an ambitious talent at a crossroads, so it’s more than just a special feature for fans alone. Conan laughs, of course, when he compares himself to Patton, Napoleon, and Anne Frank, but in its relative context, the story of his near-breakdown and triumph has a Shakespearean sweep of its own.