You can't keep a good man down. Or apparently, a good talk show host. The biggest takeaway from 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop,' a behind-the-scenes documentary about the red-bearded late night host's forced exodus from TV, is that Conan O'Brien has a near pathological drive to perform. He's a man who can't seem to allow himself to take a break, even after he was paid $45 million by his former employer to shut it down for six months.
Whether he's in front of his personal assistant, the writers' table, or a packed concert hall, Conan is constantly seeking an audience. That compulsion is part of what makes him a successful comedian, and it's also what pushed the suddenly unemployed O'Brien on the road last year for a 32-city tour following his exceedingly public dust-up with NBC and Jay Leno. With director Rodman Flender in tow, 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop' treats us to a candid portrait of a consummate performer who simply doesn't know how to turn himself off. Luckily for Conan, we don't want him to.
Flender provides O'Brien the audience he's looking for in his documentary, which gives Team Coco members a behind-the-scenes look at the comedian's Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour. A former Harvard classmate and friend, Flender approached the ex-'Tonight Show' host shortly after he decided to hit the road in search of an audience. O'Brien's well-documented ouster from NBC is briefly rehashed via Taiwanese animation -- the only real cutesy moment in the film, which otherwise adopts a fly on the wall approach to tracking the comedy tour.
Over a period of two months, O'Brien and his band did 42 shows in 32 cities from Eugene, Oregon to Atlanta, Georgia. He was joined along the way by a roster of special guests, along with a legion of loyal fans who acted as a continued reminder that even if NBC no longer wanted Conan, they sure did. Flender follows O'Brien from the show's improvised beginnings (when they had more tickets sold than bits scripted) to the final curtain, charting the comedian's constant battle with exhaustion and a desire to keep pushing himself with one more joke, one more picture -- a man unable to shut off even on a red-eye to their next stop.
Essentially a concert movie with a few moments of personal insight, 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop' chronicles a particularly turbulent chapter in Conan's life. And Flender was there at just the right moment to capture it, though one can't help but think a documentary following Conan through the rocky end of his 'Tonight Show' tenure would have been far more compelling.
As is, 'Can't Stop' is an intriguing backstage pass to O'Brien's comedy tour, where he played to sold-out audiences across North America, and where, for the first time in his career, he had people actually paying to see him. In a telling reminder of the devotion of Conan's fan base, we watch as his tour dates are announced only to sell out in a matter of minutes. As much as Conan missed his audience, they clearly missed him right back.
Still, despite this love-in, the O'Brien we see here is a far angrier and more bitter version, one that was already beginning to spill out in his final few episodes of 'The Tonight Show.' His anger at how the whole ordeal was botched so completely and publicly is understandable, and Conan captured public sympathy so strongly in 2010 he became the Sandra Bullock of late night. But while frustration is necessary fuel for any comedian, O'Brien gets increasingly grouchy as the tour moves on, privately bitching about the endless stream of meet-and-greets and extra demands that seemingly pop up out of nowhere.
Flender gets moments that only a friend can, pulling back the curtain as we frequently see an off-the-cuff Conan. But the overgrown class clown can also be a bit of a bully, whether he's pretending to fire his assistant for bringing him fish drenched in butter sauce (an uncomfortable and only half-joking hissy fit) or taking a pre-show moment with former-staffer-turned-'30 Rock'-star Jack McBrayer from playful teasing to overkill.
Conan's well-aware that many of his jokes have a mean edge to them, and admits as much to Flender. But like the title says, he just can't seem to stop himself. O'Brien's consistently funny enough that he gets away with it though, the product of a brain under duress that still keeps firing away. And Flender's portrait of his friend is ultimately sympathetic, since Conan's so clearly giving the fans his all -- night in and night out (even on his supposed days off).
Everyone wants a piece of Conan as the demands pile up, from a pre-show cocktail party to Bonnaroo, where he's obligated to introduce each act as an impromptu emcee. But even though he may complain, we never see him turn an extra gig or an extra autograph down. Conan O'Brien, it seems, also can't say no. Seeing how exhausted he is as the tour winds down, you start to hope someone will step in and try to stop him for his own sake. But then again, NBC tried that already (though for admittedly less altruistic reasons), and look how well that turned out.
'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop' is already playing in the US, but opens across Canada on July 7 for a one night 'Cineplex Entertainment Front Row Centre' Event and then is opening theatrically in Toronto and Vancouver on July 8.