Length: 89 minutes
MPAA Rating: R. Age Appropriate for 15 and over. Contains R-rated profanity (these are comedy writers after all), but that’s about the only thing that distinguishes its content from what you’d see on most late night programs.
The Morning After
For the deposed crown prince of late night, hell is the space between gigs
by Jared Peterson
In 2010, less than 7 months after taking the reins at NBC’s “Tonight Show”, Conan O’Brien was clumsily and very publicly kicked to the curb. Stung and seething, but contractually obligated to lie low and keep quiet, O’Brien nonetheless felt compelled to get back to performing any way he could. He got out from under the bus, then hopped right on again, embarking on a multi-city tour of live stage shows. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop tags along on his odyssey and reveals, among other things, just how much it’s possible to care about being on television.
The “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour” was clearly a kind of therapy for O’Brien—in the show’s monologue, in fact, he makes regular references to the stages of grief, adding two or three more for comic/dramatic effect. He throws everything he has and more into the new endeavor, nearly running himself into the ground in the process—all because, painful as it was losing late night’s gilded throne, what really tore at his insides was the forced hiatus from the stage and separation from an audience. This may sound narcissistic, and it is. But that’s entertainment.
The film’s most notable revelation is that Conan O’Brien is capable of being a jerk. It’s a side of him most fans had never seen or even imagined before. Bitterness and the lingering pain of having been gut-shot on the national stage are a small part of his snideness and shortness. But like many successful performers, he is a perfectionist, and that quest for the grail of “the best show ever” drives him forward, occasionally glancing off innocent bystanders in his path. His complaints and frustrations, mostly about efficiency and performance, are always couched in humor—a defense mechanism prone to collateral damage. Predictably, his assistant, Sona, often finds herself downrange of his tenacious teasing. But being aide to a celebrity, especially a hardworking one, requires a fair amount of emotional jujitsu, and she rolls with his pulled punches with good-natured, professional grace. (She’s the film’s unsung hero and, at the end of the day, Conan’s too.)
All told, Conan is a relatively well-mannered 400-pound gorilla. He knows how much of a pill he’s being and that the show and his career are a team effort, and he sometimes wishes people would stand up to him more often. The flipside of his perfectionism is a deep desire to please. Privately ragged and exhausted, when he is onstage or on the street, greeting fans in crushing crowds or one-on-one, he is polite and unceasingly attentive. More than anything else, eagerness to please is why Conan can’t stop, and it brings him up against boundaries he knows are precarious. For instance, in a bizarre lapse in judgment at a show in Canada, Conan squirmingly relents to a special request from a fan who moments earlier had made a casually anti-Semitic remark. It’s an uncomfortable moment, as we realize that he can’t bring himself to burst the bubble of someone who’s made the effort to come watch him work.
None of Conan’s inner turmoil detracts from the fact that he and his crew are really very funny. We’re shown clips of the evolving stage show, and given an inside look at the writing process, with all its rigor and inspiration. Backstage, he and guest stars Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert throw together comic bits on the fly, with seconds to spare—they’ve all come to play for the simple love of the game. The show also includes some pretty good live music—country- and blues-rock covers played by Conan and his longtime house band at a driving, time-and-a-half tempo. (O’Brien, a talented and enthusiastic musician, actually crushes a couple of these numbers.)
Documentarian Rodman Flender, a veteran TV director, benefits from unfettered access to O’Brien, but his documentary choices are uneven—a narrated opening coupled with a wordless ending, and interviews peppered with jump cuts that compress answers to sometimes intrusive questions from off-camera. A great moment when Conan, in a post-show funk, searchingly asks the man behind the lens how the show went would have been all the more effective if it had been a unique break in the fourth wall.
There’s no arguing that O’Brien’s multimillion-dollar detour hardly amounts to a tragedy (though he does jokingly compare himself to Anne Frank). But scale the dollar figure down, or ignore it altogether, and you simply have a man working his tail off doing what he loves. Many of us, for good and ill, are defined buy our jobs and haunted by the ghosts of opportunities missed or cruelly denied—and achieving a well-earned dream job only to lose it in a messy corporate reshuffling is a familiar fate in this day and age.
If Conan O’Brien the performer has never been your cup of sleepy-time tea, chances are this film won’t help you acquire the taste. But if you were or are a fan, then Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a privileged tour of the comedy star’s inner workings—an irresistible peek at what makes the Coco clock tick.