Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Director: Rodman Flender): I haven’t watched late-night television with any consistency since the 70s, when I would tune into The Tonight Show to see Johnny Carson, but even I knew about the recent travails of Conan O’Brien. Brought in to replace Jay Leno as host of NBC’s The Tonight Show in June 2009, he was gone just seven months later, a result of some epic bungling on the part of the network’s executives. Leno’s primetime show was doing poorly in the ratings and the network decided to push his show later, to 11:35pm, with Conan’s show pushed to 12:05am. The Tonight Show would actually be airing tomorrow, in reality if not in name, and Conan was unhappy with the plan. In January 2010, he reached a deal to leave NBC, returning Leno as host of The Tonight Show. In exchange for a $45 million settlement, Conan was legally prohibited from appearing on television until September 2010. Boredom and anger at the network’s handling of the situation led to inspiration, and soon he and his staffers were working on plans for the Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour, a 30-city tour across the US and Canada which would put him in front of the many fans who had supported him during his dispute with Leno and NBC.
Even before the tour kicked off, he’d lined up his next gig, as host of his own latenight show (Conan) with the TBS Network, and it wasn’t like he needed the money, so why take things on the road for the first time in his life? Flender’s doc shows us all we need to know. What’s not perhaps obvious is that Conan’s departure from NBC put a lot of people out of work. He had his own writers and his own band, plus various assistants and other support staff. While he got a generous settlement, he wanted to keep his friends employed, and although not discussed in the film, he took none of the proceeds from the tour himself, preferring to pay his staff. As well, the tour gave him a chance to work out some of his anger and bitterness toward the network, and as a result the comedy, while likely not his funniest work, is some of the most personal.
The title of the film also reveals a lot. For a born entertainer like O’Brien, it’s impossible to simply “switch off” as a result of some legal agreement with a former employer. He’s a guy with a pathological need to entertain, and the tour wasn’t just cathartic, but therapeutic in many different ways. That doesn’t mean to say it was necessarily a well-advised move. By the latter stages, Conan’s clearly running on fumes. He’s 47 years old and a road newbie, and the pancake makeup can only hide the exhaustion for a few hours at a time. Onstage, he gives everything, but as he slumps off more and more drained after each stop on the tour, the strain begins to show. Although unfailingly polite to fans, he begins to chafe at all the meet-and-greets and backstage visits that inevitably go with the rock star lifestyle. By the time the tour stops at the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee, he’s fried. When the organizers tell him he’s been scheduled to introduce each musical act in addition to performing his own show, he crumples, but then he gets on with it. Although we definitely see the fragile, whiny, needy side of Conan, he keeps it between himself and his staff. And it’s also nice to see that even after 25 years in show business, his confidence is still fragile when performing new material.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop shows us a side of the man that we don’t get to see on television. At perhaps the most vulnerable time in his professional career, he lets a film crew follow him around the country as he performs every night without a net. In his incredibly rare and precious moments with his wife and young children, he lets us in. When he’s having a blast and killing the crowds, we’re there, but we’re also there when he slumps offstage and bitches at his longsuffering assistant Sona (who really comes across as the heroine of the entire film). Flender’s film, though not cinematically groundbreaking, achieves a level of intimacy with the man that allows us to see a fully-fledged human being rather than just a wisecracking comedian. And did I mention that it’s quite often hilarious?
As a fellow member of the Irish Fraternity of the Ginger Cowlick(™?), I’ve always looked up to Conan O’Brien as my much taller, much more talented, and much more extraverted twin brother. After seeing this film, I’d be proud to count him as a member of my family, for real.