REVIEW: Conan O'Brien Can't Stop Is a Portrait of a Cutup That's a Cut Above
In the spring of 2010, Conan O'Brien walked away from his coveted Tonight Show post when NBC made him an offer he could all too easily refuse: The executives wanted to push his show into a kiss-of-death time slot in order to offer the show's prime real estate to Jay Leno and his career-saving Oklahoma-land-grab machinations. Even casual TV viewers who'd never paid much attention to O'Brien took notice: It wasn't just that O'Brien stood up to the network, in the process severing a 22-year relationship. He also navigated an extremely public feud with catlike grace, standing his ground while also refusing to act like -- and there's no polite way to put it -- a dick.
The whole episode underscored one of the signal problems of our day: Why do so many people act like dicks? And what does it take to steer yourself through a difficult situation and not be a dick? O'Brien became something of a folk hero, but temporarily, at least, he was a folk hero without a job. Contractually prevented from appearing on television, radio or the Internet for six months after his last show (though it's beyond me how anyone but God could ban an individual's Internet presence), O'Brien conceived a 32-city music-and-comedy show as a way of staying loose, letting off steam and making some money. Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is an account of that tour, which was hastily put together but far from carelessly executed: The picture, which was directed by Rodman Flender, one of O'Brien's old pals from his Harvard Lampoon days, captures in entertaining and sometimes excruciating detail the trauma that live performers willingly put themselves through, partly to entertain us but also to fuel some drive in themselves.
Flender's camera begins following O'Brien in the early days of his self-imposed NBC exile: He describes himself as the "least-entitled person" but also makes it clear that he knows he deserves better treatment than he got. "Sometimes I'm so mad I can't even breathe," he says. O'Brien describes a number of those basic human feelings that drop-kick all of us from time to time, like being resentful of anyone and everyone who still has a job when we don't.
But he also knows that 99% of life is just getting over yourself, which is why he wastes no time getting back to work, assembling a team of writers and organizers to help him get his show on the road. Flender captures the most mundane moments (O'Brien presiding over a writer's meeting, a mellow golden dog sacked out by his side) and the most discreetly telling ones (O'Brien informing his trusty assistant, Sona Movsesian, with deadpan earnestness, that she's fired because the takeout fish dinner he'd ordered arrived with butter, not without, as he'd specified). O'Brien puts himself through the paces of rehearsing not just comedy bits but demanding musical routines: Supported by his band and two backup singers he's christened "the Coquettes," he favors raucous Elvis covers like "Polk Salad Annie" and Eddie Cochran heart-attack inducers along the lines of "Twenty Flight Rock."
We also see him peering out from the wings as he's waiting to be introduced, electrified by nervous energy, and then sitting in his dressing-room, post-show, not quite knowing what to do with himself. After his Radio City performance, Sona tells him there are barricades set up outside to control the fans who've lined up in the hopes of seeing him. He surprises everyone by stating he wants to go out there: "I'm not gonna go from that to reading a Kindle," he says -- the show may be over, but it's still coursing through his veins. One minute he'll express annoyance at the number of backstage visitors he has to deal with; the next, he'll put on his game face for a fan meet-and-greet, acting as if he couldn't be happier to spend one of his precious spare moments chatting with complete strangers. He signs autographs, sometimes on body parts, and graciously accepts home-made baked goods.
Conan O'Brien Can't Stop captures not just the thrill that live performers thrive on, but the tedium that invariably sets in when they have to go back to being themselves. From the looks of this documentary, O'Brien navigates that transition better than most. He conceived the tour in order to reconnect with the basics of performing -- the ultimate goal is to achieve a mind-meld with a live audience, and O'Brien mostly seems to pull it off. But the off-duty moments Flender captures are even more telling. In the movie's finest and most understated sequence, O'Brien greets a small group of young fans in Calgary who have traveled miles to see him. They have tickets for the show, but one of them is concerned that he won't be allowed in, as the venue is a casino and he's underage. As he's expressing his worry to O'Brien, and asking for his help, he casually drops an anti-Semitic epithet.
O'Brien stops short and asks the young man what he just said. And then, with remarkable agility and graciousness, he finds a way to correct the kid without embarrassing or talking down to him. He not only promises to help; he actually does. But as a condition, he makes the kid promise that he'll never use that phrase again.
There's a line of thought that asserts celebrities can't possibly be actual people. They make too much money; they ask for trouble because they crave the limelight; they're barely worthy of our time and attention unless they're doing the job of, you know, pleasing us. Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is an assured and revealing show-biz documentary not just for the way it chronicles the arduous task of putting together a show, but for the way it suggests that even the most gregarious performers might dare to have inner lives too, guided by certain principles of conduct. It's great fun to watch O'Brien perform, to see him reel off a succession of one-liners as if they were mini-Frisbees or rattle through one of his crazy, wooden-peg puppet dances. But it's even more gratifying to watch him stand up for things that he cares about, or to stand against things he knows are just wrong, without being a killjoy or a scold. As Flender captures him in this perceptive and humane piece of filmmaking, he's that rare show-off who's also capable of leading by example.