‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’ Being Funny, Even When He’s Bitter

In the opening ten minutes of the documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, a beleaguered O’Brien is seated at his dining room table. “I’m really angry at times,” O’Brien confesses, “I’m trying not to be, but I’m really, really angry.”

O’Brien’s attitude is understandable. The documentary begins shortly after O’Brien’s intensely public departure as host of NBC’s The Tonight Show. Contractually prohibited from appearing on television, radio or the Internet, O’Brien responded by creating a 32-city music-and-comedy show entitled “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour”. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop documents the behind-the-scenes activity of this ambitious tour.

Although there are similarities to other tour docs, such as Jason Priestley’s Barenaked in America or Emmett Malloy’s The White Stripes: Under the Great White Northern Lights, director Rodman Flender (a seasoned television director whose recent credits include Ugly Betty and 10 Things I Hate About You) provides much more than a backstage pass. At times interactive while at others purely observational, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a remarkably candid, complex and personal portrait of O’Brien that transcends the late-night host’s television persona.

In telling O’Brien’s story, Flender shows only enough of the stage show to give viewers a sense of the energy, intensity and commitment of O’Brien as a live performer. One snippet of the live show reveals a gag O’Brien and his team have concocted about the “8 Stages of Mourning the Loss of Your Talk Show”. What emerges in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is that O’Brien himself is working through his own grief, and it’s no joke.

The excellent production values of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop are critical in delivering this deeply honest chronicle. Flender, who has known O’Brien since their time together at Harvard, is afforded unfettered access to O’Brien’s home and his writers’ meetings as well as rehearsals, green rooms, theatre wings, hotel rooms, restaurants, buses and planes. Through his tirelessly ubiquitous photography, Flender attains the coveted prize of cinema vérité in that the camera’s presence is often forgotten by the subjects — an achievement made all the more commendable given Flender’s subjects are people who normally work in television. Flender’s audio production is impeccable, too; every bit of dialogue is crisp and clear, and there are only two lines in the entire work that require subtitles.

Through hours of footage winnowed into an 89-minute presentation, Flender gives an account of O’Brien’s grieving process. O’Brien redirects his sense of loss and anger into the live show and into connecting with fans. There are moments of exhaustion, despondency and irritability, but overall, viewers witness a man who remains true to his principles, his craft and his audiences. As the tour nears its end — and there are no spoilers here because O’Brien new show is now firmly ensconced on cable channel TBS — a reinvigorated O’Brien declares, “There’s an elation to this, which is coming out of the utter despair of what happened.”

Besides grief, another theme that emerges is loyalty. It’s stunning to observe the loyalty O’Brien shows his team and vice versa. O’Brien is surrounded by faces familiar to his television viewers: co-host Andy Richter, executive producer Jeff Ross, writer Mike Sweeney as well as band members Jimmy Vivino, Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg and all the rest. The respectful yet lighthearted working relationship O’Brien has with his assistant, Sona Movsesian, is a delight to watch. Employers in many fields could take a few lessons from the way O’Brien runs his production company.

Most admirably is the loyalty O’Brien has to his own values. The time O’Brien spends signing autographs, taking photos and simply talking with his fans shows a man who truly cares about people, even if it leaves him exhausted and vocally compromised for an upcoming show.

Another scene that lends insight into O’Brien’s principles occurs before a show where O’Brien meets three young men who hope to get into the venue despite one of them having had his ID confiscated. When the he uses an offensive term to describe the potential of having his ticket denied, O’Brien chides the him and makes him promise never to use the offending term again as a condition of admittance.

Fans of Conan O’Brien will likely savor this in-depth portrait. Those who are unaware of O’Brien may not get the comedy — but they may still be captivated by a story of a man re-channeling disappointment into something positive.

The DVD contains a wealth of extra features. Among them are additional behind-the-scenes glimpses from the tour, including an important and heart-warming scene where O’Brien tells his staff members about the new show deal with TBS. Also among the DVD extras are long excerpts from the actual stage show, notably a gut-bustingly funny sequence involving a signature gag where O’Brien plays random clips of TV’s Walker, Texas Ranger. Another extra is a recent interview in which O’Brien reflects on the experience of having participated in Flender’s documentary.

RATING 9 / 10