Movie Review: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Directed by Rodman Flender
Starring: Conan O’Brien, Andy Richter
Release Date: June 24, 2011 (limited)
On Demand

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year and half, you’ve at least heard of The Tonight Show debacle that happened last year. Conan O’Brien‘s short-lived reign as the show’s host only lasted 7 months, but the fallout from his departure lasted significantly longer. Though it was certain O’Brien would land another show with ease, as part of his exit deal with NBC, O’Brien was prohibited from appearing on TV and radio for six months. To fill the gap, O’Brien went on his “Legally Prohibited from being Funny on Television Tour.” But even during this time, O’Brien often found himself in front of a camera, as Rodman Flender filmed a documentary about the trip. Nearly a year later, the film is now showing in a very limited amount of theaters.

The appropriately titled Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop opens with a brief summary of the events that led O’Brien to leave his post and follows the tour from conception to its aftermath. Starting with the idea of a road show, O’Brien and his team of writers and producers hastily lay out plans for a 90-minute program that is little more than an idea even after tickets have gone on sale. Pressure begins to mount quickly as, to the visible surprise of everyone, the first two shows sell out in less than 20 minutes.

Interspersed with clips of tryouts, rehearsals, and bits from the show itself, the real core of the film comes from candid interviews with O’Brien. Though he acknowledges he was never entitled to his prior successes or any claim to the Tonight Show, O’Brien clearly struggles to keep a positive outlook while dealing with the anger he can’t let go of. Though the remarks are sparing, O’Brien occasionally takes digs at NBC executives and Jay Leno (the latter of whom took over as Tonight Show host) that make it clear he is having difficulty moving on. All the while, it’s clear O’Brien has long become addicted to, if not fame itself, the act of performing for people.

Fans of Conan will certainly enjoy the humor throughout the film, and those who were not able to see his road show will likely be thrilled to see several part of the show incorporated into the film. The most interesting parts, however, show O’Brien’s love-hate relationship with performing. While O’Brien’s personal assistant gets the sharpest edge of his passive-aggressive backstage nature, there are several instances where everyone is exposed to the rough side of the performer, including his fans.

The big picture of the film is of a man with conflicting desires he is unable to resolve. As the tour marches on, O’Brien begins to show major signs of fatigue. He grows frustrated with his staff when it becomes apparent, with only a few hours to prepare, that he was contracted to perform much more than he expected during his stop at the Bonnaroo music festival. Juxtaposed with his high-energy on-stage performance are shots of an exhausted and insecure O’Brien sitting alone backstage as the audience leaves. He avoids reading any reviews of his show, but is quick to doubt himself and is cynical about those who compliment his performance.

As O’Brien begins to show signs of burnout, his producers tells the crew to make sure the days off between shows are actually days taken off, yet, the very next scene is O’Brien ignoring these suggestions and creating more work, more shows, for himself even when he is clearly exhausted.

Prior to a show in Vegas, O’Brien meets a few young fans outside the venue (a casino) who are upset about being kept out because one of them lacks the proper ID. O’Brien sympathizes and offers to help make arrangements for them, but is taken aback when one of the young men says he doesn’t want to get “Jewed” out of his ticket. While O’Brien is offended by the remark and scolds the fan for saying it, the next scene shows that O’Brien’s producer (who is actually Jewish) not only helped the men get into the show, but got them in early to the sound-check.

O’Brien giving everything he has for his fans even when they get on his nerves becomes a recurring theme throughout the film. Following a show in New York, O’Brien spots a large crowd of fans outside the building. Against the suggestions of everyone else in the room, he goes outside and begins signing autographs. Though he signs for everyone he can reach, O’Brien pleads with fans to stop asking for him to pose for pictures with them because it would just take too long to do with everyone. Even after handlers continue to tell fans to stop, several persist to the point when O’Brien becomes visibly annoyed and leaves.

At one point, O’Brien is told he has a “pre-show” party in LA he must attend to glad-hand all the big-shots, followed by the show as scheduled, a meet-n-greet with fans, and the usual after-show work. When he finally gets a chance to rest, one of O’Brien’s back-up dancers shows up with what seems like a dozen family members, all of whom want to meet and take pictures with him. Though he puts on a happy face and gives the guests their hugs and pictures, O’Brien vents his frustration the moment the group leaves. Celebrities don’t often get a lot of sympathy for paying the price of their fame, but it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy when he’s clearly putting in the effort and in desperate need of a breather.

But he never stops, and as the title suggests, he can’t. It quickly becomes clear that the line between the character of Conan O’Brien and the man Conan O’Brien is a very blurry one. He pours himself into his performances, and though he semi-jokingly refers to a meet-n-greet with fans as “giving away a piece of my soul” it’s obviously a price he gladly pays.

There are plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments, but Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is an equally entertaining and seriously insightful look into the life of a man who gives everything he has for what he does, often to his own detriment. While looking behind the scenes of a single tour, the film manages to peer behind the curtain of a living caricature at a very real person, complete with all his baggage.

1 Comment »

  1. I saw the film at the local art house and I can barely remember it, but what I took from it is that O’Brien was still in shock that he had lost his show, so he did this insane project to keep from screaming jokes at passing cars.

    Comment by Strelnikov — June 20, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

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