Friday Movie Review: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011)
February 10, 2012 6 Comments
The documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011) opens with a brief statement and a two-word question:
Conan O’Brien replaced Jay Leno as host of “The Tonight Show” in June of 2009. He was gone in seven months.
What happened after Conan was expelled from The Tonight Show is that he toured live, putting on the The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour. The documentary follows him during this tour, but don’t expect a run-through of the show or even an in-depth analysis of how it was put together. The film is much more of an investigation of Conan and what keeps him going.
Even Conan O’Brien wonders what makes him go:
I’m 46 and what do I do now? What else do I have to say? I’m just trying to figure that out….I just know that I’ve always liked being in front of an audience.
I don’t know what it’d be like to stop. What do you mean, stop? What does that even mean?
I appreciate that the film and the man acknowledge the anger. Conan is almost freakishly calm as he says:
There’s fuel there because I am angry. I’m really angry at times. I’m trying not to be, but I’m really really angry about — and I just have to be honest — I’m very angry about the way that I was treated….sometimes I’m so mad that I just can’t breathe.
The tour taps into the anger:
Conan: It definitely is me saying to the whole idea of non-creative people screwing over people that feed their bone marrow into the wood chipper of television, fuck you.
But sometimes that anger seems to spill over onto others, such as his assistant, Sona. When Conan’s lunch arrives and the fish is swimming in butter, rather than grilled, Conan grills Sona and won’t let go. The sparring is all done with irony, as a comedy act, but one player is a heavyweight and the other has never stepped into the ring.
Conan is also upset when others interrupt his antics or simply won’t play along. When he forces Sona to speak into a banana as if it were a phone, she tells him both “This is really demeaning” and “This is not a good work environment. This is not healthy for me.”
Some of this edge comes from the enormous amount of pressure he is under, being a man who is an industry. You kinda have to be pathological to do this job. Many of his complaints boil down to asking for others to parent him, to provide him with boundaries.
Some of this edge comes from his background. Conan forged much of his professional personality in writers’ rooms, for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. Comedy writers can be rough with each other, and when we see Conan and Andy Richter spar, we are as close as we get to seeing Conan in his natural environment.
When I’m with writers or I’m with musicians and we’re working things out, then I’m content.
When I meet someone of Conan’s ilk in person, I tend to be reminded that their act is an act, sure, but that it’s also rooted in reality. When Conan jokes about his incessant neediness, it’s a joke based on truth, and we see that as he does things such as getting off of the bus and entertaining people at the gas station. Conan’s executive producer and close adviser, Jeff Ross, tells him not to greet the crowds after a gig at Radio City Music Hall, to which Conan replies:
I can’t go from this, to what? Sitting and reading a Kindle? That’s not going to happen.
I’d actually like to see more of this off-stage darkness come through the TV screen. Some of it did in his last weeks at The Tonight Show, and however painful that was for the people involved, it made for riveting TV.
The personal animus against Leno arises when a pizza is delivered with a message, and Conan pretends that it comes from Jay.
Is this a telegram? It’s from Jay Leno! [Slipping into a caricature of Leno's high-pitched whine:] Hope that stand-up’s going well! Ha-ha. See, anyone can do it! What’s it like to have a soul?
Conan does have a soul, and the fact that he allowed these cameras is testament that he is soul-searching.
There are plenty of fun bits. There’s Conan rehearsing with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart rehearsing nine minutes before the show. There are insights into how he handles the job, such as the revelation that he uses the “act as if” rule from improvisational theater when he’s in over his head, so that he “acts as if” it’s normal to be interviewing Barack Obama or playing guitar with Bruce Springsteen.
Even Sona gets in a funny and sharp joke after Conan acts as the MC at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
You had 40,000 people in the palm of your hands. It was like seeing Hitler up there, but like a nicer version.
Conan is at his self-observant best near the end of the tour, when he pauses to assess it all.
It’s got to stop, because it’s very Peter Pan….This is the purest hit of excitement and adrenaline and everything I love about show business, but you can see the sickness of it, too….I absolutely love this and I also understand that this has got to stop pretty soon.
Don’t watch Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop for a coherent narrative. Do watch if you want a deeper sense of how Conan ticks and tocks.
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