Review: ‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’

·Editor

1. Look at this Conan O'Brien. Look at him. So young, so silly, so bursting with energy and ideas, so full of nervous comic energy. He's a live wire, desperate to show the world what he can do, to bring his signature brand of humor to the rest of the planet. Young Conan O'Brien was a wunderkind, a reaction to the sort of Old School Performer faux-dignity of your Johnny Carsons, your golf outings with Bob Hope, your pastel plaids. He was a guy who just wanted a laugh, from an absurdist, intelliectual place, a guy who deconstructed comedy by blowing it up and calling it Pimpbot. It was a generational sort of comedy that saw Billy Crystal and Robin Williams and Chevy Chase for the egotist famewhores they became, those more interested in glory and praise and easy pops than earning laughs. Conan O'Brien and company (his writing staff included Louis C.K., Robert Smigel and Demitri Martin) dared you to laugh, in increasingly surreal fashions; in their way, they were almost anti-performance. It was why we all loved him.

2. Now look at this Conan O'Brien, the Conan O'Brien of today, the Conan O'Brien of "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop," a new documentary that follows O'Brien's Legally Prohibited From Being On Television Tour from early last summer. This Conan O'Brien responds to losing "The Tonight Show" by staging a two-month tour series featuring comedy skits, his pal Andy Richter and lots, and lots, of Conan O'Brien playing guitar and singing. This Conan O'Brien is anything but anti-performance: This Conan O'Brien, so changed by nearly 20 years on the air every evening, finds himself not only missing the applause every night, but physically incapable of surviving without it. He dives into the audience during shows, he rushes into the street looking for those waiting for him afterwards and he gives countless interviews explaining just how cruel "executives" were for taking away the one thing he always wanted: To be seen. This is not how he phrases it, of course. It's all about "being among the fans," or "staying in touch with my people," or "giving people what they want." But let there be no doubt about it: Conan O'Brien profoundly needs be dancing and singing and being funny in front of people who tell him he is great. This does not make him unusual: This, in fact, makes him like just about every other performer on earth. But this is not what you think Conan O'Brien is like, and not what he wants you to.

3. Much has been made of how "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" director Rodman Flender -- an old friend of O'Brien's -- had full access and final cut to show O'Brien however he saw fit. That may be true, and I have no doubt he did, but it's obvious that Flender loves and admires O'Brien. ("He's just too talented and too genuine and good a person and that combination leads to good things," Flender told IFC.com.) So when Conan falls into his "black period" following losing "The Tonight Show," it is taken at face value, as if this were this American tragedy, rather than one man's television show being canceled and being given $45 million as severence. (I mean, I dislike Jay Leno as much as the next guy, but you know what: I think somehow Conan is gonna make it.) This is woven into Flender's narrative, the notion that the tour is his way of returning to the world, his way of overcoming his grief and rediscovering his gift. At the risk of offending Conan Nation, give me a freaking break. This tour was about Conan O'Brien not being able to be away from the spotlight. It is a testament to Conan's skill as a performer that the crowds came, that he received all the love and affection he was looking for. But the movie assigns almost messianic status to Conan: It is we, the world, who are just fortunate that Conan returned to save us.

4. Flender's inability to step away from his adulation of Conan ultimately works for his film, unknowingly: It leads to some truly revealing moments, scenes that don't quite play as either Conan or the filmmakers might have intended. Let's just say that Conan O'Brien does a lot of complaining in this movie. He can't believe that he has to hang out with Jon Hamm and Jack McBrayer before a show in LA. He can't believe that he people show up early to his shows to ask for autographs. He can't believe that they want him to introduce all the acts at Coachella. We see Conan lying on green room couches all across America, moaning about all the demands that are being put on him; "nobody's thinking about burning ME out," he says to his beleaguered (but still admiring) assistant on several occasions. Now, of course, the road is tiring for seasoned performers, let alone a relative neophyte like Conan; we would all have moments when the fatigue got to us. On the other hand: Hey, you asked for this, Conan. If there's one theme throughout "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop," it's the Victimization Of Conan, with the world divided solely between people who want to cheer Conan, and those who stand in the way of those who want to cheer Conan. It doesn't tell us a lot about performers; they're all like that, or they wouldn't be performers. But it does tell us a lot about Conan.

5. The movie, like Conan and his entourage, is still pretty relentlessly entertaining; these are funny people, and even when they're being self-indulgent, they're still funny. (My personal favorite, as on the show itself, is Andy Richter, who just sort of hangs out on the periphery, the most normal person around, ready to hop in with a punchline when needed.) And some of the concert scenes have a hot-wire energy, particularly in the early going, when Conan is still figuring out how his show is going to work. But that's not you'll remember from "Conan O'Brien Won't Stop." You'll remember the persecution of Conan, the total loss of perspective he had on his life, the scenes that you suspect, someday, if not already, Conan will look back on and cringe at. At one point, Conan openly grouses about having to stay in shape for his show, that if he gains a pound, everyone in America will notice it. This is what being on television every day for 20 years does to you. Through it all, it's rather stunning, but sometime down the line, our beloved Conan O'Brien ... he turned into Larry Sanders.

Grade: B-