Film Review – Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
In case you’ve been living under a rock the last year (or have better things to do than follow media gossip or celebrity exploits), you may not have heard about what happened between late night hosts Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno. After Leno left The Tonight Show, the anchor of late night television, Conan O’Brien stepped up to become his replacement. However, after Leno returned from his brief retirement, combined with low ratings for both The Tonight Show and for Leno’s new primetime program, Conan felt compelled to do the only thing he thought was right, which was to step down from the job he wanted since he was a youngster. This all happened within the span of seven months. Legally restricted from giving interviews or appearing on television for a short time, Conan worked around the system to go on a multi-city comedy tour, which is the subject of director Rodman Flender’s documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011).
The film documents the creation and execution of O’Brien’s comedy tour “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny.” In it, we get to see him and his team gather, plan, write, audition, and rehearse the show that would eventually find its way across the country, many of his team being the same people who worked with him while he was on television. I had the distinct pleasure of watching this stage show when it came to Seattle, and if you were fan of Conan’s while he was on air and didn’t get to see this, then you really missed out. There was a little bit everything thrown in: music, dancing, comedy skits, and special guests. Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam, was the special guest that appeared at the show I attended, and I was glad to see that his appearance was highlighted in the film. Above all, though, the one thing that is taken away from this tour was a chance to hear what Conan felt and was going through during the whole late night debacle. He had stated time and again that The Tonight Show was the greatest franchise in television, and that to host it was a lifelong dream he’s always had. To lose that so quickly and so publicly must have been a terrible experience for him, and he used this tour as a way of dealing with those issues head on.
In regard to the film, it is very funny and entertaining. If you like Conan’s wacky, silly, pie-in-the-face kind of comedy, then you’ll fit in right here. We get to see in detail how he works with and interacts with the people around him, all in hilarious fashion. He laughs, jokes, teases, and playfully beats up just about everyone around him. From his personal assistant, to Andy Richter (his sidekick on television), to the fans he meets on the road, to even celebrities, there isn’t a person safe from Conan’s comedic torment. There’s one point in the film where he meets with the actor Jack McBrayer, and the way Conan treats him is almost that of a bully, and we aren’t really sure if McBrayer is playing along with Conan or if he’s really upset at his treatment. Then, there are the more intimate moments, which show a side of Conan not really seen by people outside of his close circle. The film shows him with his family: his wife, children, and the strong bond they all appear to have. We also see him tired, exhausted, and almost regretful of the fact that he took on such a physically demanding tour. He laughs and jokes with people, but as soon as they leave the room he collapses in a heap, sick and tired of having to put on his funny persona for such a long amount of time. He gets frustrated when he learns he was booked for a gig that would take up his whole day, and with his complete lack of energy when he performs two shows back to back on the same night. If anything, the most interesting thing about the film is seeing Conan having to deal with his celebrity, pretending to enjoy the moment when all he wants to do is jump in his car and drive away.
With that said, I walked out of the theater with an odd sense that although the film is very hilarious and we do get a backstage view of what happened during this tour, I do think that we don’t get the complete picture of what we may have been looking for. The film very much feels like a collage, a clip show of all of these moments that happened, without really telling a story or heading toward any kind of destination. I feel that the movie really only skirts the surface of what we want to know; the questions we may have are addressed but never actually answered. I think we all want to find out what Conan’s true feelings are about Jay Leno and about having to leave The Tonight Show, and Conan does share a little bit of that, but he is never pushed into going further. He’ll state that he was or is angry about the situation, but nothing more than that. Instead, he’ll turn things around and go off telling a joke or being his usual silly self. He is like this so often in the movie that I found it almost like a defense mechanism—that he does harbor these strong feelings but isn’t exactly enthusiastic about letting that part of him come out completely. It would have been nice to have at least one scene where Conan really does, honestly, let out his frustrations all the way, but that scene is only hinted at instead of fully realized. As a result, I’m not sure when or if Conan is genuine in certain sections of the movie, or if it’s all just a continuing part of his act.
But regardless of the issues I may have, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is still an entertaining documentary about one of the funniest people on television. Although it never gets as deep or as insightful as I hoped it would, I still found myself laughing out loud throughout its duration; it works as a montage of all these moments with Conan simply doing his thing. Presently, Conan has found a new home on TV, as host of his own talk show, Conan, on TBS. There, it seems he hasn’t lost a step; the gags, the self-deprecating humor, and, of course, the fiery red hair are all still present. It’s too bad that it just wasn’t accepted as part of The Tonight Show; if he’d had more time I really feel he would have been able to find his audience. But maybe that’s a blessing in disguise, since if Conan never stepped away from NBC, he never would have created his tour. If he never created his tour, this film would never have been made. And if this film never got made, audiences would never get the chance to see him walk around in that skin-tight purple outfit which is an exact replica of Eddie Murphy’s get-up in Raw (1987). That, right there, may have made it all worth it.
Final Grade: B