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Entries in Conan O'Brien Can't Stop [2011] (1)


Conan O'Brien Can't Stop (2011)

A Terror on Tour

Sometimes, I watch a movie and wonder who it was made for. Rodman Flender's documentary, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, follows the TV host on a forty-four-city tour of the United States, following the humiliating second chapter of the infamous late-night wars. A series of sticky, legally binding clauses prevented O'Brien from appearing on television or discussing the details of his battle with NBC--so he took his case to the people with a lively, celebrity-guest-studded variety show. But instead of a David and Goliath story, Flender reveals that the witty, affable star's biggest fight is against his own petulant narcissism. I wonder how "Coco's" fans will react to seeing their hero behave like such a villain.

Full disclosure: my familiarity with O'Brien as a performer is limited to the last NBC show, which contained a really touching tribute to the out-of-the-box wackiness on which he'd spent nearly twenty years building a loyal, hipster empire.*

I went into Conan O'Brien Can't Stop cold, with no expectations or fandom to color my reaction. What I found was a troubling portrait of a gifted man whose lack of perspective and empathy did nothing to make me want to follow his career. From his persistent whining about doing meet-and-greets with fans to a passive-aggressive, bullying demeanor with his staff that--he admits--is tolerated largely because it's camouflaged with jokes, I couldn't get behind O'Brien's quest to satisfy his desire to be on stage.

That desire is a fascinating through-line. His frustration is palpable, and the speed with which he and his team put together the tour is a testament to O'Brien's need to be seen and adored by as many people as possible, as often as possible. However, judging by the clips of these performances, it's unclear who was entertained more: aside from the live band and drop-ins by the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Eddie Vedder, a good deal of the shows' run-time seems to be about O'Brien pacing the stage and railing against everyone who's wronged him. That's his right--and it's his fans' right to pay for that--but the phrase "Get over it" began looping in my mind about twenty minutes in.

I believe that NBC and Jay Leno acted poorly towards O'Brien; most people probably do. But one thing the documentary highlights is O'Brien's ridiculous amount of wealth. That's to say, yes, he got screwed. But he had a multi-million-dollar parachute that guided him safely to, I imagine, a multi-million-dollar safety net surrounded by unlimited choices and opportunities. If his need to perform live were that overwhelming, he was perfectly capable of renting cameras, a crew, and space near (or in) his house and bussing in audience members for as long as the itch persisted. Instead, he charged money for tickets, t-shirts, prints, and posters while delivering a bizarre "woe-is-me" routine to sold-out theatres nationwide.

This might have been forgivable (an afterthought, even) had O'Brien not been so hard to watch. Maybe five of the film's eighty-eight minutes showcase a man who resembles a human being worthy of such praise and devotion. He repeatedly punches his assistant, managers, and writers in the arms and legs while insulting them. And though everyone laughs this off as "Just Conan" behavior, the film offers no indication as to whether or not O'Brien is kidding--and, if so, how much. Particularly painful is a backstage encounter with 30 Rock star Jack McBrayer, whose Southern accent becomes a source of ridicule. The look of shock and hurt on McBrayer's face was obvious to me, an outsider, but not to O'Brien, who just saw him as a living riff-magnet.

Flenders' portrait of O'Brien's fans--who come off as mostly young, white, obnoxious, and entitled (one going so far as to complain that he'd been "Jewed" out of show tickets)--meshes very well with that of O'Brien himself. Their surface admiration quickly turns surly when time runs out for autographs or picture-taking. And O'Brien suffers a love/hate relationship with the people who show up for him, indulging their requests for hugs for hours on end--and then angrily complaining about having to indulge strangers' requests for hours on end.

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to put on a show, and a chilling portrait of a guy who's paid a fortune to be silly and witty five nights a week. But the narrative so openly contradicts the film's title that it's hard, as an audience member with no emotional investment in the star, to understand why everyone puts up with all the complaining and harassment. Conan O'Brien could've stopped, whenever he wanted to. And thanks to his landing a new late-night hosting gig at TBS (a station he openly mocks early in the movie), he can finally stop whining.

*Aside from a handful of early Simpsons episodes and a chance encounter in the lobby of Chicago's NBC tower fifteen years ago.