As a Conan O’Brien fan who followed The Tonight Show ordeal as closely and obsessively as Internet access allowed, I’d describe the last two years of the host’s career as: a) hectic and b) well documented. Everybody interested in knowing what went down at NBC and in the Conan and Leno camps does; there’s even a book about it– The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy. So when you hear there’s a Conan documentary coming out, it’s hard not to think, “Don’t I know this story already?” Having seen Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, the new film by Rodman Flender chronicling the late night host’s post-Tonight Show live tour, I now feel sufficiently able to answer that question: no, you don’t.
The movie picks up where author Bill Carter’s aforementioned book leaves off — with Conan, The Tonight Show a not-so-distant memory, regrouping with his circle of confidants to plan his next move. The camera follows Coco and co. as they write, rehearse and perfect the road act that will serve as their post-NBC-trauma, pre-TBS deal palette cleanser. But unlike Carter’s book and the rest of the coverage surrounding the Tonight Show debacle, the film isn’t interested in a play-by-play retelling of events. It’s about how it felt to be at the center of a giant media firestorm, and what it’s like to pick up the pieces after unexpected events and difficult choices turn your world upside down. The answer, in Conan’s case, was to throw himself into what he loves: comedy and music.
“I’m happiest when I’m with comedians or musicians working things out,” Conan says at one point during the documentary. He’s telling the truth, because one of the biggest treats about this movie is getting to see that joy in its purest form. We feel it when he’s auditioning backup singers, re-writing the lyrics to Wille Nelson’s “On The Road Again,” jamming his way through rockabilly tunes and trying on a spot-on replica of the leather onesie Eddie Murphy wore in his now-classic stand-up comedy concert film Raw. You realize that this is the stuff he desperately needed to get back to after months spent haggling with network suits and lamenting the 11:30 pm dream that wasn’t meant to be.
Flender was granted total backstage access. This isn’t sound-bite/press release Conan. It’s a frank look at an entertainer in a raw state. “Sometimes I’m so mad I can’t even breath,” Conan tells Flender. These sit-down interviews are candid and straightforward, but the truly revealing moments come when O’Brien is captured just being himself. We see it all: Conan riffing with his writers, chewing out his assistant for messing up his takeout order and belittling Jack McBrayer during a tense, pre-show hang session that he’s annoyed about having to participate in. Conan’s diva-like behavior definitely has shock value, but you’re also left sympathizing with someone who’s expected to be all things to all people at all times.
In a surreal moment, O’Brien compares his situation to that of Anne Frank. The point is. Conan isn’t always pretty, and we get to see that. A more fun moment involves Conan scoffing at a proposed meeting with TBS, making a joke about how soon he’ll be taking meetings with the Oxygen network.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a must for die-hard fans, but it’s also a great documentary for anyone who’s ever wondered what it’s like to hit the road as a professional entertainer, to have a legion of loyal fans watching your every move or to be at the center of a media machine. When Conan announces the tour on Twitter, and then watches as each date rapidly sells out with the show’s content far from solidified, we sense the pressure he feels to deliver. But we also feel his excitement at the prospect of being in front of an audience again.
Nothing crazy or unexpected happens in the course of the film – by the time the movie starts, those plot twists are already over and done with. This movie is about what happens after the shit has already hit the fan, what a person lets go of and what that person holds on to. And it’s about a performer for whom stopping just isn’t an option.