There’s an uncomfortable scene midway through the Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop in which the ousted Tonight Show host holds a meeting with his writers to go over some ideas for his soon-to-launch touring show. As his assistant voices concerns about some joke or piece of itinerary, O’Brien throws a banana at her and insists that everyone who wants to speak at the meeting do so by using the banana as a telephone. Some of the writers handle it just fine, goofily playing off the prop. But O’Brien’s assistant is thrown off balance. She wants to be serious for a moment. She wants to be taken seriously. She wants to get her point across and know where she stands. Yet, in O’Brien’s world, these are all desires that prove out of reach.
Rodman Flender’s documentary about Conan O’Brien’s wildly successful touring production that now stands as a footnote between the late night host’s transition from NBC to TBS follows the form of many comedic documentaries, with last year’s Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work coming quickly to mind. Making it as a comic, let alone a daily television host, requires energy and tenacity most of regular people couldn’t even imagine is possible. O’Brien’s character fits the bill. He is a consummate performer, a determined taskmaster, a prickly perfectionist, a workaholic, and a genuinely funny person. He is also prone to using humor to mask irritation or apply passive aggressive pressure on his coworkers. It creates an exhausting, pressure-filed work environment that, on screen, sucks the glamour out of the idea of show business.
For those of you who missed the late night television soap opera that unfolded in early 2010, Conan O’Brien had taken over The Tonight Show, replacing Jay Leno as part of a long term agreement that had planned for the younger comic’s succession of Johnny Carson’s chair. Leno, reluctant to leave the job, moved to a 10 p.m. slot, which subsequently slumped in ratings. NBC wanted to push the lineup back, essentially returning O’Brien to the wee hours of the morning, but allowing him to keep The Tonight Show name. O’Brien resisted, and eventually quit the network, prompting one of the more bizarre pop-social revolutions, as “Coco” lovers (Coco being O’Brien’s nickname) took to the streets to protest the ousting of their favorite late night personality. Banned from TV as part of the contract agreement with NBC, O’Brien decided to create a live show and tour sold-out theaters and concert halls.
We get to see chunks of the road show in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, a sporadically funny, fan pandering vaudeville act that combined classic O’Brien gags, with some new jokes and rousing musical performances fronted by the guitar-playing late night host. In the documentary, the show appears as a setting for emotional release. O’Brien admits he is angry about the NBC fallout, and his high-energy dancing, singing, and playing feel like good humored spoofs laced in aggression. The tour may have helped galvanize O’Brien’s fan base, but its real purpose seems to have been some kind of performance therapy.
The whole affair devolves into the usual road-weary moaning late in the movie, as an exhausted O’Brien turns into a rosy cheeked, red-haired version of the memorable cranky Thom Yorke from the Radiohead tour doc, Meeting People is Easy. Yet these kinds of celebrity documentaries, always so cagey with their subjects, are most fascinating in the small moments, such as the kitchen table scene when a jocular O’Brien admits that his joke-jabs may push his wife to leave him. Or later, fed up with an overcommitted schedule at Tennessee music festival, the consummate comedian turns his complaints about the gig into the jokes the presenters wanted for him all along. In the movie we see what makes O’Brien charming and appealing, yet unflatteringly human and unrecognizable. It is a remarkable that it is this kind of personality that is required to make millions of Americans feel at home each night in front of late night television.