I’m like Tinker Bell. Without applause, I die.
What Conan O’Brien can’t stop doing is punching people. He lunges at them, pummeling their shoulders. Sometimes they hit back, but not as hard. Because, hey, he’s the boss, and he needs to unwind.
This habit is one of several exposed in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. Rodman Flender’s keen-eyed documentary begins just after the battle over The Tonight Show, which involved O’Brien, Jay Leno, and the NBC brass in late 2009 and early 2010. When the dust settled, O’Brien walked away many millions of dollars richer while Leno had the show. As part of his severance, O’Brien could not appear on television for six months.
At this point, the film submits, O’Brien started punching his various writers and producers more frequently. He also decided that he needed to get out in front of live audiences again. The “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour” was born. Flender tags along as O’Brien and his staff pull together a musical-comedy variety show he could barnstorm through a few dozen cities in order to keep from losing his mind.
The bits and pieces of “Legally Prohibited” we see rehearsed and performed in the film aren’t very impressive. There’s a full band playing the kind of revved-up, middle-of-the-road tunes one expects to hear on late-night television. There are skits involving a guy in a bear suit and sidekick extraordinaire Andy Richter. There’s O’Brien himself, sometimes wearing a purple suit that gives slithery homage to Eddie Murphy’s attire in Raw, strumming a guitar and belting rockabilly tunes and some numbers that were likely funnier in the writing. The audience is borderline rapturous. Some Team Coco fans look delirious at getting to see their idol in the flesh, doing what he always does, only without having to stop to interview an actor who’s super-excited about the fourth season of his show on USA.
The most refreshing parts of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop show O’Brien un-tethered on stage (or on a plane, on the street, in a bus, backstage), riffing like he’s some addict of comedy. He’s more free-associating than on the TV show, often spinning off on tangents that leave audience members half-laughing and half-baffled as to the direction of it all.
It’s another sign of the exhaustion of the late-night talk-show format (as if we needed it). Because, no matter how 150-IQ Harvard-laced the humor may be, the show is selling sausage. On his tour, O’Brien’s trying to do modern vaudeville, and while it’s a ramshackle and needy kind of fan-pleasing thing, watching him indulge himself on the guitar (more than competently, it must be said) is far superior to watching him interview Megan Fox.
It’s also good to see O’Brien in a new context. Here he’s not only desperate for applause, but also pushing himself, experimenting as a quintessential artist of anxiety. That he has nobody to blame but himself for his seeming travails is the irony that hangs heavy in scenes where he moans about never having any time to himself. That advance word on the film focused so intently on its diva scenes (sending back his fish because it has too much butter sauce on it, comparing himself in one artless moment to Anne Frank) only illustrates again mass media’s taste for schadenfreude and spectacular lack of knowledge about the demands put on performing artists.
Joe Strummer, who pushed himself to the limits in many of the same ways, once said that his favorite scene in This is Spinal Tap was where the band complains about the backstage bread being the wrong size for sandwiches (Chris Salewicz, Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, NY: Faber & Faber 2007). He didn’t love it just because it was ridiculous, but also because it was true. Night after day after night of emptying one’s self out on the stage and being at every flunky’s beck and call can lead artists to this state, where getting a sandwich done just the right way or some fish that’s not drowning in butter matters—immeasurably.
O’Brien is a clamorous and downright strange artist normally idling at 150mph. He doesn’t know any other way to do things. It’s good that he landed on TBS, because otherwise, this tour might have gone on for months, and at the end, there just would have been a blackened cinder on the stage where a red-haired comic once stood, fighting for that last laugh.