Hot Docs Review: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

By  · Published on May 2nd, 2011

by Lauren Flanagan

By now everyone knows the story of Conan O’Brien and his fateful episode with hosting The Tonight Show. But what a lot of people don’t know is what happened in the months between being dumped by NBC and starting his new gig on TBS. During that time O’Brien was legally prohibited from being on television and found himself without an audience. So what’s an unemployed, multi-million dollar comic to do? Take his show on the road and hit the clubs and arenas with an aptly named tour, hence, the “Legally Prohibited from Being on Television Tour.”

The documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, directed by Rodman Flender, begins right after the collapse of the Tonight Show gig and follows Conan and his team as they plan, write, and execute the 32-city tour. The movie is a mix of documenting the tour itself along with observing and analyzing Conan’s psychological state during the time. He’s tired, gaunt, pale (more so than usual) and at times completely listless, yet he’s also still incredibly driven and ambitious. It’s fascinating to watch a man who’s been kicked down get up again. Lord knows it ain’t easy – and Conan doesn’t try to make it look that way.

Conan O’Brien is funny, no doubt about it. But he’s also very bitter. Perhaps a little too bitter. While no one’s arguing that he got screwed over, comparing himself to Anne Frank (which he does, seriously) is a bit much. One could even go so far as to say he’s a bit of a jerk. He gives his writers attitude, he’s fairly mouthy to his assistant, and he gets frequently fed up with his fans. Those around him on the tour take his witty insults with good humor because really, what choice do they have? But some visitors to his dressing room find it a bit tougher (Jack McBrayer gets a particularly tough dose of Conan’s comedy). But despite his crappy attitude, it’s quite easy to sympathize with the guy and still find him likeable, even when he’s being an asshole.

The title Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is apt. There’s an intense push and pull between his innate shyness and his desire to entertain and be in front of a crowd. Even on his days off – which he begs for – he finds himself on stage performing. The guy just can’t say no. He wants to, but he wants to say yes even more. He’s addicted to being “Conan O’Brien.” This is made painfully clear after a show at Radio City when throngs of fans await him outside the venue. He’s advised not to go out and see them yet he’s so pumped after the show he doesn’t really have a choice. As he says, he can’t just go back to the hotel and read his Kindle. So out he goes, full of life and excitement only to tire of it almost immediately. The fans want more than he can give (which is understandable on his part), so he dives into his limo and yells “shut this fucking door!” It’s both sad and frustrating – for Conan and the fans. Yet you know it’s going to happen again, and again, and again. He just can’t help himself.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop speaks to the truth about being a celebrity. Not B-list movie actress celebrity – on your television and in your home every single night celebrity. There may be money and certain perks that seem appealing, but being someone with the kind of fame that Conan O’Brien has isn’t always a barrel of laughs. The loss of privacy, the expectations of your time, the never-ending schmoozing and the intense schedule that keeps you from being with those you love can be soul-destroying.

Despite everything, Conan still comes off as the kind of guy you’d love to know. He’s funny, he’s friendly, and he seems like a genuinely good guy – he just happens to be human. And sometimes humans can be jerks.

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